Image © IWM

Nicola White, Writer-in-Residence at the Nursing Studies department at the University of Edinburgh writes: I’ve been at two Medical Humanities events recently where, when it came to question time, the same query arose, though from two different plaintiffs: “What about nursing?” Cue a lonesome whistling wind and the scud of tumbleweed.

When we talk about medicine we mostly talk about physicians (curing suffering, causing suffering) and patients (plain old suffering, occasional bright spells) Other health care practitioners come in as also-rans. Yet images of nurses stride through the popular imagination – as cruel and uncaring as Nurse Ratched in recent press reports, jolly heroines cycling through suspiciously clean slums in Call the Midwife on TV, headless and scantily clad beside the French maid in the windows of Anne Summers – images that tell us very little about the job of nursing, but a lot about ourselves. This week marks the run-up to International Nurses Day, which falls (not co-incidentally) on Florence Nightingale’s birthday, May 12. There has been a lot of talk about ‘angels’.

I’m not a nurse, I’m a writer, a Writer-in Residence to be grand about it, supported by the generosity of the Leverhulme Trust to spend the year with the Nursing Studies department of University of Edinburgh. It is, as far as we can make out, the first time an artist or writer has worked directly with and for nurses. In the course of my time in Edinburgh, I’ll be interviewing individual nurses about their experiences and running workshops to encourage nursing students to craft their experiences into stories and fiction. Some of these things will turn up in my writing.

On October 2nd 2012 I’ll be giving a talk in the Teviot Lecture Hall, at Edinburgh University’s Medical Quad, entitled ‘Good Nurse, Bad Nurse’ on how nurses have been portrayed in books and film and the strange persistence of certain out-of-date stereotypes.

Oh, and there’s a blog. All praise to the blog form for being a wonderful capacious hold-all with lots of pockets that can contain stories by me and by others, articles about nurses and popular culture, profiles of diverse and interesting nurses, not to mention thoughts on medical history and Edinburgh. It’s a kind of home to the residency, and will develop as the year goes on. Come and have a read, and If any one has ideas, stories or opinions to contribute, do get in touch at Nurse Stories.


Jan · May 10, 2012 at 10:21 am

I am an ex nurse and midwife, now a English Literature post grad. My Dissertations for my BA & MA were on the representation of the nurse in literature, culture & society. I am trying to take it forward to PHD and actually have a place at Leicester, but so far no funding. You are so right – the nurse in medical humanities is conspicuous by her/his abscence. I am so glad to see this post and will try & get to Edinburgh in October to listen to your talk, which is very similar to my dissertations. I am on twitter as @janmayo_ if you would like to contact me.

    Nicola White · May 10, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Thank you Jan, I have a sneaking feeling it is you who should be giving the lecture! I’m not on twitter, but perhaps you could email me at and we can keep in touch.

Thomas Lawrence Long · May 10, 2012 at 11:15 am

Welcome, Nicola, and congratulations on your new post at Edinburgh. There is a growing number of nurse writers and of scholars (in literary studies, culture studies, and media studies) interested in nurse writers and representations of nursing. On the question of why there are relatively few well known nurse writers, you might be interested in my initial exploration:

I’ve added your Web site to the links list of the NursingWriting Web site. –Tom

    Nicola White · May 10, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Thank you Tom, I did read and enjoy your piece just before I took up the post. It also gives me the opportunity to draw attention to the work of British nurse Christie Watson, who won the Costa Prize for first novel this year for her book ‘Tiny Sunbirds Far Away’. It’s not about nursing, which makes her even more exceptional.

Centre for Medical Humanities · May 15, 2012 at 8:31 am

In case you haven’t already seen it, this article (just published) might be of interest in pursuing the study of nursing and writing: Andrew McKie, “Using the arts and humanities to promote a liberal nursing education: Strengths and weaknesses,” Nursing Education Today 2012

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