Curating ‘postcards of nursing’ for US exhibit


A mission nurse, Hankou, China, 1930s

A researcher at the University of Liverpool has curated the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) postcard exhibition on representations of nursing during the 20th century.

The special display, at the NLM’s History of Medicine Division Reading Room and the online adaptation, represents a selection of historic postcards from the recently-acquired Zwerdling postcard collection, spanning a century of nursing imagery.

NLM acquired the archive, consisting of more than 2,500 postcards, from American nurse and collector Michael Zwerdling. The postcards show images of nurses and the nursing profession from around the world, produced between 1893 and 2011 with many examples coming from the ‘Golden Age’ of postcards—roughly 1907 to 1920.

Cultural values

Dr Julia Hallam, from the University’s School of the Arts, curated and opened the official  exhibit.  She said: “By documenting the relationship of nursing to significant forces in 20th-century life, such as war and disease, these postcards reveal how nursing was seen during those times.”

Nurses and nursing have been the frequent subjects of postcards. No other art form has illustrated the nursing profession using such a variety of artistic styles and images. The photographs are informed by cultural values; ideas about women, men, and work; and by attitudes toward class, race, and national differences.

The online exhibition incorporates a ‘Digital Gallery,’ which includes a selection of 585 postcards from the Zwerdling collection not shown in the special display. The Digital Gallery also includes online activities, providing viewers new avenues to explore beyond the exhibition.

Online resource

The web feature, ‘Related Resources at NLM,’ also includes a selection of published articles on contemporary nursing issues available through PubMed Central, which provides free access to over 3.1 million full-text biomedical and life science journal articles.

This exhibition, Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection, is open to the public at the History of Medicine Division Reading Room, NLM, Maryland, USA, until 21 August 2015, and available online at

Leave a comment