Is The Nurse Portrayed in Career Novels Fiction or Real?

Do you remember what first sparked your interest in nursing?  Many teen girls from the 30s to 70s, were inspired by their favorite characters from popular nursing novels. Read on to learn how the nursing image was portrayed and the stereotypes that persist today. Nurses Professionalism Article


Is The Nurse Portrayed in Career Novels Fiction or Real?

What does Sue Barton, Penny Marsh and Cherry Ames have in common? They were all courageous nursing or student nurses’ characters in novel series, popular from the 30s to 70s. The books were written to motivate teens and young adults to choose a career in nursing. Many of the novels were set in uncertain and fear-filled times, during the Great Depression and WWII. The characters were courageous, devoted and they all persevered despite personal challenges.

What Can We Learn?

The authors of a recent study, published in the Online Journal of Nursing, conducted a literature review to determine if the characters in the books inspired future nurses or steer them away. They read and analyzed 18 nursing career novels, written by different authors, published from 1932 to 1970. Read on to learn about the study’s findings.

Four Common Themes

The researchers identified four main themes that both glamorized the nursing role and painted a realistic picture of nursing today.

1 - Motivation to Become A Nurse

Most of the characters chose nursing out of the desire to help and care for others. Four of the characters had fathers who were physicians, and this was the motivating factor in their decision to be a nurse. Other reasons included:

  • Encouraged by family
  • Wanted a career
  • Wanted to marry a doctor

One character was discouraged by her physician father because she would be “scrubbing floors”. Another was discouraged, also by her father, because of the negative public image of nursing at the time.

2 - Image of Nursing

The characters also had similar physical characteristics, personality and appearance.

Physical Appearance

All the characters were female and mostly white. All of them, except one, were young. The older nurse, nicknamed “oldie”, was only 33 years old.


Nursing uniforms were depicted as starched with white aprons, which required several hours to prepare. Make-up was not allowed, and hair was simple and pulled back. Interestingly, physical beauty was seen as a drawback and not compatible with the nurse’s role.

The Coveted Cap

The nursing cap was the pinnacle of the nursing program and a symbol of the nurse students wanted to become. Today, nursing students often participate in a pinning ceremony to celebrate the completion of a nursing program. In the books, a capping ceremony took place after the students finished the probationary period.


The novels’ characters shared the traits of independence, autonomy and assertiveness when caring for their patients. Courage in the face of imminent danger was also identified as a common personality trait.

3 - Stereotypes

The “love interest”

There were many hints at nurse/physician romances, but the characters remained focused on their careers.

The physician’s "handmaiden"

The novels did not portray nursing as a profession. Nurses would stand when a physician entered a room and being sure to fade into the background when a doctor entered a patient’s room.

The “battle-axe”

Almost all the books reviewed included an unpleasant nurse or student who was either jealous, a bully, a “know-it-all” or a combination. Nursing instructors were often depicted as hot-headed spinsters, who seemingly enjoyed making students miserable.

4 - The Nurse/Physician Relationship

Nurses' relationships with doctors varied widely in the book, just as they do today. Most of the relationships were positive and the physician often praised nursing care patients received. But you could also find the physician depicted as demanding and bullying.

Then Versus Now

There are characteristics of the novels’ nurses that would translate well to the present day. We could all relate to the professional challenges experienced by the historical nurses, but also relates heavily to the rewards of patient care.

If the novels were written to draw teens to nursing today, the authors point out updates that would be needed. Today’s nurse:

  • Is more autonomous
  • Provides patient care at much higher acuity
  • Practices under the profession’s own body of evidence
  • Collaborates with the physician
  • More diverse (age, gender, ethnicity, culture, etc.)

The profession of nursing has made great strides over the decades. However, the profession continues to effectively communicate its contribution in a healthcare system that is much more complex.

What is needed today to motivate individuals to join the nursing profession? Let's hear from you!


Nursing Image as Portrayed by Nursing Career Novels
M. Anthony, PhD,RN, J. Turner, BSN, MLIS & M. Novell, MA

J. Adderton MSN has over 20 years’ experience in clinical leadership, staff development, project management and nursing education.

121 Articles   502 Posts

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I've only read one book with a nurse as the main character. The nurse ended up being the murderer. Which I think is humorous.

Of course the depiction of nursing was inaccurate (not that a nurse can't be a murderer ?). She started out working in a Skilled Nursing Facility, then later it was implied she was working in an ICU.

Her house had a rental unit in back. She had killed the prior renter, and ended up killing the current renter. She got away with it to. I can''t remember how?

Red Shirt 6, CNA

2 Articles; 166 Posts

I have read a few of the Cheery Aimes books and I remember there was always a mystery involved so she was a nurse detective.

To answer your question

On 2/5/2020 at 7:14 AM, J.Adderton said:

What is needed today to motivate individuals to join the nursing profession?

I think we need to take some of the mystery of Nursing College. AS far as I know there are few depictions (especially compared to the number of med school fiction) of what it is like and most are set before the 1970's.

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