A look back at nurses in 1950

Happy National Nursing Week to my wonderful nurse friends!

Can you identify the countries in which these nurse uniforms were worn?

International Nurse Uniform Photograph Collection (ca. 1950), Helene Flud Health Foundation

(Left to right, top to bottom) 1950 nurse uniforms as worn in:

  • Philippines, Denmark, British Honduras
  • Hong Kong, Madeira, Kenya
  • Nepal, Dominican Republic, Colombia

 Canadian Nursing Students in 1950 at Children’s Hospital School of Nursing in Halifax, Nova Scotia

The Children’s Hospital School of Nursing, specializing in pediatrics, was established in 1916. The school offered a three-year professional nursing course and prepared young women to qualify for any branch of nursing after graduation. It was also the first school of nursing in Eastern Canada to accept an African-Canadian student in 1945. Most nursing schools would not accept married women, and immediately ended the training of nurses who married or became pregnant.

In 1950, women entering the 3-year nursing training program at Children’s Hospital paid no tuition, but were required to pay a student government registration fee of $5. Nursing text books cost approximately $55. Nursing students lived in the on-site nurses residence throughout their three years of training.  Results of all course examinations were sent home to the students’ parents, who were then required to sign and return forms to the nursing school.  A monthly weight record was also kept of all students.

Nursing school incidentals required upon entrance into this program included:

  • one pair of bandage scissors
  • one pair of white nurses shoes ($8.00)
  • two pairs of white nylons (at $1.00 each)
  • three nurse dresses (approximately $4.75 each)
  • six collars (at 35¢ each)
  • 14 aprons (at $2.50 each)
  • one alarm clock
  • one wrist watch
  • one napkin ring
  • one steamer rug or colored blanket
  • two labelled cotton laundry bags (20 inches by 20 inches)

Nurses were also required to purchase a cape after six months, which in the 1950s cost anywhere from $21-$30.

After graduating, salaries for nurses at the time averaged $140 per month, but some hospitals paid as little as $90 per month. Many hospitals would not employ married women (this practice continued well into the 1960s in some communities).  Up until then, many married graduates worked as private-duty nurses.

In 1948, the labour relations committee of the Manitoba Association of Registered Nurses released a report which documented the reasons why the province seemed unable to recruit and retain enough nurses. These reasons included:

  • long hours
  • low salaries
  • poor living conditions
  • too few holidays
  • instability

The average workweek for nurses at this time was 48 hours (and in at least three hospitals ranged from 66 to 90 hours), compared to the public health agency average of 38 – 40 hours.

In 1949, the Manitoba provincial government announced that new hospital funding would not be given to hospital boards unless they could guarantee they had found nurses to staff them, and would not be ‘raiding’ other facilities to find nurses. The government also recommended that hospitals create pension plans for nurses as a way to encourage women to work in their facilities.

Interestingly, this potential solution to the nursing shortage was not taken very seriously. Nursing was then considered to be:

“…a natural extension of a woman’s caring and nurturing role as mother, wife, and daughter, and was devalued as such.”

This ineffectiveness of voluntary salary schedules and personnel policies was actually one of the main reasons for growing interest in unionization. Staff nurses began to show their willingness to use collective action to improve their working conditions.

Although they were not unionized, nurses at the Virden District Hospital in Manitoba walked off the job in October of 1957, striking for better wages after unsuccessfully attempting to negotiate a pay increase for three months. The women were immediately fired, and replaced by former nurses who had had to leave the profession when they married.

Sources include: Mount Saint Vincent University Archives and the Manitoba Nurses Union

Q: Are you a nurse?  What are the most significant changes in the profession since you graduated?


UPDATE, July 4, 2018:  Nurse, professor emerita at Dalhousie University and author Dr. Barbara Keddy’s book about the history of nurses’ training in the 1950s is called The Lamp Was Heavy, a history of nurses’ training in the 1950s. Ordering info here.

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote about nurses (and doctors) in my book  A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease.  You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

12 thoughts on “A look back at nurses in 1950

  1. I started my student nurse training in November 1949 . We were paid 9 pounds a month and lived in the Nurses Home. A board and lodging was included as was our uniform . We spent the first 3 months in PTS Preliminary Training School. I was just 20 when I started which was considered quite old, most my class were just 17. So I am 93 now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Margaret for sharing your own training experiences here. I’m guessing you’ve seen a lot of major changes in the nursing profession since you were 20!

      You might be interested in my friend Dr. Barbara Keddy’s book called “The Lamp Was Heavy” – all about the history of nurses’ training in the 1950s. More information about how to order it here.
      Take care. . .


    2. I was a student nurse in 1974 at the age of 19. Even in the state of Pennsylvania in the US, once one entered the nursing program, the director owned you.

      Our hair had to be a certain way (off your face and your collar)preferably cut. Nurse Mate shoes, remember those? the laces had to be horizontal. School was our life, with no time for boyfriends or going out except for study groups. Our class was the last class taught in the old way.

      We started out with 50 and graduated with 20. My pay as a graduate nurse was $80 a week and working all of the major holidays because I was single and lived at home. New graduate nurses had to “pay their dues”.

      Many a night I drove home in tears. I will say this though, as far as I know, most of my class went on to advanced degrees and pretty successful careers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Judith -I’ve heard similar stories from my nurse friends too (e.g. “the Director OWNED you!”) Those graduation stats show a remarkable drop out rate (30 out of 50!?)

        Congrats on making it through – and a successful career!

        Take care. . . ♥


  2. I would like to point out that although the NHS in the UK celebrates over 70 years in existence, the BBC and other British institutions have chosen to ignore the immense contribution by Irish nurses towards the running of the NHS from the 1950s onwards, helping people on the way to recovery.
    These ‘compassionate ‘and gregarious ‘Angels’ came in their thousands to train and care for the sick giving every ounce of kindness and youthful energy to helping people get better. Their reputation is respected throughout the world – except in Britain.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wished I could have been around in the 1940s & 1950s or even in the 1920s – life was a lot better back then.


  4. Loved this article. I graduated from a 3-year hospital diploma program in 1963 and marvel at the way nurses were thought of back in the day.

    We had no married students in our class at the onset but they did accept a couple of gals as time went on. I still have a close knit relationship with classmates and we’re having our 50th reunion in September.

    What I recall was how we staffed our hospital during the summers and worked with no pay, even were in charge during the evenings and nights… but we graduated knowing hands-on nursing procedures and felt very prepared when we graduated.

    Thanks for the memories of our great profession.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I too went to a 3 year diploma nursing program & graduated in 1963! Oh yes, we staffed the evening & nights, especially summer & holidays. I remember being age 17 & in charge of the whole floor of 40 patients.

      We did learn though. No coddling us. And I went to a nursing school run by Catholic nuns! Double the whammy 🙂 I am very close to a nursing classmate who I also went to high school with! We were a small nursing school class, only 16 of us. The bond remained.

      So nice to find this site!

      Liked by 1 person

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