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At the Canadian Museum of Civilization: angels, heroes and the first female army officers in the world

June 18, 2005 -- Today the Ottawa Citizen ran a generally good piece by Shannon Proudfoot about the "first national exhibit on nursing" which is now open at the Canadian Museum of Civilization near Ottawa. The exhibit, "A Caring Profession: Centuries of Nursing in Canada," runs through September 2006. It reportedly explores the history, contributions and diversity of Canadian nurses, from the French Augustine nuns who arrived in the 17th Century to modern nurses, who now face a "quiet crisis." Ms. Proudfoot's piece also includes input from Center executive director Sandy Summers about the traditional stereotypes of nursing--images that the exhibit could help to counter.

The piece is headlined "Angels and heroes: A tale that needed to be told: Exhibit explores history of Canadian nurses." It reports that the exhibit was culled from the collection of the Canadian Nursing Association, which was started by the Association's former executive director Helen Mussalem. The story reinforces its discussion of the exhibit mainly with quotes from Mussalem, the first Canadian nurse to earn a doctorate, and Christina Bates, the women's historian who serves as the museum's curator of Ontario history. There are also several photos of pieces from the exhibit. The piece leads with an anecdote showcasing Mussalem's own patient advocacy during World War II. It describes how she was surprised to be met on her return from Europe by a young soldier. It turned out that, back in England, she had saved the man's leg by persuading physicians not to cut it off after it had become infested with maggots (which is actually now considered an effective treatment for infected wounds). The man thanked her "for saving his leg and his life."

Bates reportedly wanted to highlight the varied roles nurses had played in Canada over the last four centuries, to show the public that nurses did not just work in hospitals. The exhibit includes a section on nurses who have worked on the nation's frontiers, such as those who used railway carts to reach "far-flung patients" across the vast nation's "snowy landscapes," and a section on community nursing, including a backpack full of supplies that well-known Toronto "street nurse" Cathy Crowe used to care for the homeless. The piece notes that among the exhibit's items is a video of a nurse comforting a frightened young polio patient "encased from chin to toes" in a 1950's iron lung; the nurse is "eliciting small smiles" from the child by making a doll dance across the metal drum. While such emotional support can be vital to patient outcomes, we hope that the portions of the exhibit about nurses' specific activities also show how they have saved lives through actions that are more clearly based on advanced training, such as skilled monitoring of patient conditions and care plans, timely clinical interventions, patient education, and groundbreaking research.

The exhibit also reportedly places nursing in the context of its role as an early "vehicle for women to access a wider world," as "generation after generation of women push[ed] the boundaries of their gender." As the piece notes, until the feminist gains of the late 20th Century, the profession was one of the few ways "ambitious women" could "experience higher education, professional employment and adventure." Mussalem confirms this, observing that when she graduated from the Vancouver hospital school of nursing in 1937, women's job prospects were pretty much "nursing, teaching, steno." But as the piece notes, Canadian nurses could vote during World War I (long before other women there), and Canadian nurses were the first female army officers in the world. The exhibit appears to bring out the adventure element of the profession's appeal, with a focus on nurses' work in the far North and foreign battlefields, and the matter-of-fact courage of women like Mussalem.

The piece observes that nurses also "loom large in the public imagination through their archetypal depictions in popular culture," though it's not clear to what extent the exhibit focuses on such images. The story explains that one of the most enduring of these images is the "flattering idealization" of the tireless "angel" bringing comfort to those in need, an image that does not "acknowledge[] the real needs of nurses for reasonable work hours, meal breaks and adequate professional support." Here the piece quotes the Center's Sandy Summers, who notes that such imagery can excuse decision makers from taking seriously "nurses' concerns about actual labour issues--what it takes to save a patient from going down the tubes." It is not clear how much the exhibit addresses what the piece terms the "quiet crisis" in nursing today, and the piece could also have explained specifically what that crisis is, especially since its image discussion touches on some of the key elements of the crisis. The piece goes on to explain that the Center is "an international body that campaigns against inaccurate portrayals of nursing in popular culture and the media, in the belief that these warped images have a real effect on societal attitudes and, ultimately, healthcare legislation."

The article provides good examples of some of the main nursing stereotypes. First, it suggests that Florence Nightingale is often seen as an angel "cooing to injured soldiers," though she was actually a "hard-nosed, ambitious and sometimes abrasive woman" who "instituted far-reaching reforms in patient care and professional training." It also cites the battleaxe stereotype exemplified by Nurse Ratched of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and the "subservient and sexualized" naughty nurse. The piece notes that Summers says the naughty nurse image may be rooted in a "male desire to regain control by trivializing medical staff in a situation where many people find themselves afraid, in pain or otherwise vulnerable," suggesting that this may also explain the battleaxe image. Though the piece does not make the link specifically, the exhibit itself could have a positive effect on the troubled nursing image by showing the public some of what nurses have really done over the centuries.

On the whole, the piece is a valuable description of the long and diverse history of nursing in Canada, as well as some of the profession's image problems, and we thank Ms. Proudfoot and the Ottawa Citizen for it. We also urge anyone who is in Ottawa over the next year to check out the exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.


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