Photograph courtesy of Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine
These Bettys and Joys and Junes and Bevs, with their shampoo sets and slip-covered microscopes, were “probies”—probationary students at Washington University School of Nursing who, before being fully admitted, spent five months studying biology and social science. Here they are in anatomy class, where the poor medical model looks flayed and surprised, throwing knees and elbows around to try to hide the fact he’s without clothes—and skin and eyelids, too. The students themselves wear the required school-issue jade-green dresses with button-on aprons and bibs; at the hospital, they would pin on a little half-moon hat. It was, like all nurse uniforms, basically a shrunken nun’s habit (before Florence Nightingale invented nursing school, monks and nuns took care of the sick). Though she didn’t struggle with frilly oversleeves or capelets, there was plenty of maintenance for a 20th-century nurse. Most every night, she’d come home and soak her white dress and stockings in a sink full of bleach water, polish her wedge shoes with Sani-White, and double-check her bobby-pin stash to make sure she could anchor her cap in the morning. By the ’80s, uniforms were polyester zip-up dealies with attached aprons, and the caps were paper. They were gone by the ’90s, replaced with ceil-blue or sea-green scrubs. Somewhere along the way, that gave way to clowns, dogs, and polka dots. Studies have found this confuses patients—but studies have also found children are terrified of people dressed all in white. And in a world full of germs, blood, and first and last breaths, the sterility of white does seem scary; better the joyful weirdness of biker Santas, metallic tie-dye, tumbling pastel monkeys, or Betty Boop sliding down a rainbow, holding a giant spoonful of cough syrup.