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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

What Nursing Looked Like 100 Years Ago

Turns out things like face masks, bedside manners, and, of course, nurses being absolute heroes haven't changed all that much.

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Saving lives, then and now

We can’t thank our nurses and health care professionals enough for the work they’re doing right now. With the COVID-19 health crisis, people around the world are seemingly more aware than ever that health care workers are heroes. But, of course, nurses have always been superheroes. These photos of nurses from 100 years ago demonstrate that—and it also reveals some striking similarities to today. Plus, especially right now, make sure you know the things nurses seriously wish you’d stop doing.

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Helping the sick

An interesting yet unnerving fact about the world 100 years ago was that it was also going through an incredibly difficult time. World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918, and then an influenza epidemic struck the globe in 1918. Here, an influenza sufferer receives a spoonful of food, or perhaps medicine, from a pair of medical professionals at New Orleans’ U.S. Naval Hospital. This photo may be from 1918, but the protective gear that the caregivers are wearing, including face coverings, certainly looks familiar.

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Dressed for success

What do you think of these nursing uniforms in this shot from 1917? A group of nurses from the United States decked out in cross-adorned capes and broad-brimmed hats, arrives in London, presumably to help out with the war effort. Get a look at what the height of fashion looked like 100 years ago.

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african american nursesCourtesy The National WWI Museum and Memorial

Posing for a photo

Here’s another outfit that Red Cross nurses wore during World War I—the crosses were always a staple, and those hats were pretty impressive!

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african american women's motor corp driverCourtesy The National WWI Museum and Memorial

Saluting the flag

A driver for the Women’s Motor Corps holds a flag and salutes in this portrait from the National WWI Museum and Memorial. Decades before the Civil Rights movement, African American women lobbied for the opportunity to assist on the front lines.

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Merry-go-round ride

It wasn’t all work and no play for nurses, even back then! In 1917, this pair of nurses enjoy an “entertainment day” set aside for wounded soldiers, taking a spin on a carousel in the southeast London region of Sidcup.

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nurse soldierCourtesy The National WWI Museum and Memorial

Driving ambulances

In addition to providing vital services as nurses, women also performed another crucial job in World War I: driving emergency vehicles in the U.S. and abroad. Here, two ambulance drivers assist a wounded soldier stateside.

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Strict protective measures

An American nurse working the World War I front lines emerges from a shelter, her whole face covered with a gas mask. As grim and scary as a lot of things are right now, we can at least be relieved that the masks we’re encouraged to wear don’t look like this! Here’s what “N95” stands for in the masks we’re hearing so much about today.

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Avian passengers

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can make you happy. These nurses got to bring their pet canaries—whose primary purpose was to alert soldiers to impending gas attacks—on an ambulance train with them on their way to the front in 1918. The birds also brought quite a bit of comfort to those fighting and working on the front lines.

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women knittingCourtesy The National WWI Museum and Memorial

Fighting on all fronts

During WWI, African American volunteers come together to knit clothing and supplies for soldiers on the front lines.

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Patriotic parade

Back then, people recognized nurses as heroes, too, and rightly so! In 1918, a huge group of Red Cross nurses takes part in a World War I parade (clearly on a rainy day, as the spectators make clear!) in Cincinnati, Ohio. We bet you didn’t know that these everyday things were actually designed for World War I.

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women ambulance driversCourtesy The National WWI Museum and Memorial

Music break

A crew of nurses, ambulance drivers, and patients all gathers around a man playing a tune during World War I.

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Keeping busy

In 1918, these recovering soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., have these nurses to look out for them—and, in the case of the knitter, hang onto their yarn—while they pass the time with their leisure activities. Get a look at what 14 everyday objects looked like 100 years ago.

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Making the rounds

In another eerie echo of today, protective dividers made of sheets separate patients in the Walter Reed Hospital’s influenza ward in 1918. The fact that this is the same hospital and approximate time as the previous photo of war casualties really drives home the darkness of this time period.

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Out for a walk

Nurses and patients alike actually seem to be in good spirits as the nurses take a pair of wounded soldiers for a walk around the grounds of London’s American Red Cross Hospital in 1918.

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Donations, please

This nurse seems downright overjoyed with the donations she’s getting from Navy soldiers for the Red Cross War Fund in May 1918.

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A good read

Both this nurse and her patient seemed to enjoy reading an issue of Town & Country as the latter recuperates. This American soldier finds himself in a London hospital in this photo from 1918.

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Wartime guardians

In approximately 1919 London, this nurse pours drinks for a group of children in her care. They’re children of Russian soldiers, who did not return from the war, being housed in a “crèche,” or nursery, while their mothers are working.

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Making masks

In Boston, Massachusetts, this trio of Red Cross nurses wear face masks as they work to assemble some more. This image is another example of how history has a tendency to repeat itself. (Though, of course, thankfully many more people than just nurses are making face masks today!) Perhaps, ironically, in 1919 nurses were making masks for soldiers; in 2020, people from all walks of life are making masks for nurses.

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Classroom check-up

School nurses, too, had an important job 100 years ago! Students in New York, in 1920, wait in line to be checked for head lice, another thing that is frustratingly still a danger today. Here are some more photos showing what school was like 100 years ago.

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Oh, baby!

Of course, one of the most joyful nursing responsibilities is helping new mothers and looking after newborn babies! In 1921, a nurse brings a new bundle of joy to its mother at Garfield Hospital in Washington, D.C.

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Helping mom out

And more babies! We’re ending on a happy note with this sweet 1925 photo of several nurses looking after a trio of little ones, in the maternity ward of London’s St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, while their mothers look on. Next, find out how everyday hygiene has changed—or has stayed the same!—since 100 years ago.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.