Nurses from the world of fiction Respectable Women Do It


For centuries, there were few occupations open to respectable women. Beyond marriage, the only occupations considered suitable were teaching and nursing. In 1929, in part to create role models in nursing, nurses made their way into fiction as protagonists. That year, with the release of The Patient in Room 18, Mignon G. Eberhart, “The American Agatha Christie,” created an adult mystery series about Sarah Keate, a red-haired nurse with “a good sharp tongue.”

Next, in 1936, came the Sue Barton nurse series. We meet Sue Barton (also red-haired) as a fresh-faced, 18-year-old who moves to the big city to study nursing. Sue didn’t solve mysteries, but lived a (relatively) drama-filled life: After delaying marriage to a dashing young doctor for a couple of years to pursue her career, Sue marries him, they start having children (ending up with four), and she leaves her career for awhile because it’s causing a marital rift. She then questions abandoning her career, but decides raising her family is more important than nursing, and only returns to work after the children are older.

The Penny Marsh series, which started in 1938, was about a public health nurse, and focused on public health nursing practices. (Of course, Penny Marsh started as part of Dodd, Mead’s Career Books collection portraying occupational choices, so she had to take her work seriously.)

Nurses by Air, Land, and Sea!

World War II expanded nurses’ horizons. Nurses were needed for the war effort, and nursing was presented as the highest form of national service. Beyond that, war – the fictional kind – is exciting. So in 1941, Ann Bartlett joined the US Navy, and had an unenviable record of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, starting with Pearl Harbor and concluding in the Philippines. Wherever Lieutenant Bartlett went, a Japanese offensive was never far behind.

Nancy Naylor first appeared in 1939 as a young woman just out of nursing training, jumping into stewardess training and meeting a young pilot, to whom she becomes engaged. However, in 1941, filled with patriotic zeal, she followed her fiancé’s desire to serve his country, and earned her pilot’s license and joined the Army Air Corps.

Perhaps the most interesting of the wartime nurse series was the Susan Merton series. Susan Merton probably logged more travel time than even Nancy Naylor, the nurse/stewardess/pilot, and was the only fictional nurse to serve in Russia. Her secret was that she was not only a nurse, but also a spy for the Allies! The high point of her career may have come in 1944, with Nurse Merton in the Pacific. Captured by the Japanese, Nurse Merton escaped by convincing her captors that she was indeed a spy, but for the Germans. The year before, in Susan Merton, Desert Captive, the Germans had captured Nurse Merton in Africa, but she was unable to convince them that she was Japanese.

Laura Blake, “a girl who was at once a nurse, a patriot, and a woman in love,” was stationed in the South Pacific, and suspected a young physician of aiding the Japanese. To get information, she pretended to be in love with the suspect saboteur, which made her fiancé jealous and provided the real conflict to the story. On a professional level, on the cover of Nurse Blake Overseas, she was shown taking a patient’s pulse with her thumb. Laura lasted for only three volumes.

Meet Cherry Ames

In 1943, Helen Wells created Cherry Ames, the longest-lived series of young adult books about nurses. Compared to some of her professional colleagues, nurses like Merton and Naylor, Cherry Ames’ wartime adventures were almost stodgy. Only three of the Cherry Ames books were set in wartime, and in Cherry Ames, Chief Nurse she showed a moment of panic as Japanese bombs fell around her. In Cherry Ames, Flight Nurse, she helped fly wounded soldiers from England, and it was in this volume that she met the high-flying nurse/stewardess/pilot, Nancy Naylor.

Many of these series nurses never “survived” the war. Ann Bartlett managed to find Nazi spies as late as 1946, but Laura Blake ended her nursing and military careers in 1944. And Susan Merton, after two volumes about family problems, disappeared in 1947. Even Nancy Naylor retired to rural Vermont to become a public health nurse.

Why Go Into Nursing?

Young adult novels about nurses are still around, but most are single stories, not series. The war had opened new opportunities for women, and the girls who had grown up with Nancy Naylor and Susan Merton expected more from their lives, and their fiction. Cherry Ames, the most adaptable of all, after a stint at a Veterans Administration hospital, went on to a succession of jobs, managing to combine nursing with crime fighting. Her post-war titles included Dude Ranch Nurse, Department Store Nurse, Boarding School Nurse, and Jungle Nurse. The 27th and last book in the series, the Ski Nurse Mystery, was published in 1968.

Though some stories have devoted a few pages to showing nurses actually doing patient care, in many cases, nursing was just a front for a sleuthing sideline. Perhaps the farthest ranging nurse-sleuth of all is Anthea Cohen’s Agnes Carmichael, who first appeared in 1982. But Agnes is a poor role model for young girls. Yes, Agnes identifies miscreants, but she doesn’t wait for society to exact vengeance. Instead, Agnes takes matters into her own hands, including killing the evildoers! Indeed, she’s more of a nurse-vigilante than nurse-sleuth. (So you could say that Agnes is not only an excellent nurse, but is very effective at reducing length-of-stay wherever she works.)

The nurse-detective has largely moved into the realm of adult fiction, not only with Agnes Carmichael, but Edwina Crusoe, who solved her first mystery after her 30th birthday. In part, in the 1960s, nursing moved from mystery novels to the romance list. Jennifer McKnight-Trontz, author of The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel explains that the novels were aimed at middle-class women, who could identify with a nurse’s income.

In fact, Felicia Bright’s 1967 Government Nurse begins: “…The blue-eyed blonde, orphaned at an early age, had worked hard to earn both a bachelor’s degree and an R.N., and her civil service position at the first-aid station serving statehouse employees and visitors gave her financial security as well as pleasant working conditions.”

The words “financial security” would have sounded strange to Cherry Ames. Through 27 novels, she never held a job longer than 180 pages, never got vested in a pension plan, never joined a union, never had to picket for safer nurse-patient ratios, and unless there’s a missing volume, Cherry Ames, Hedge Fund Nurse, never accumulated any savings. Given time, the fictional nurse might approach reality.

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