1. Mages, Keith C. MSN, MLS, RN


A look at dolls in nursing care in the 20th century.


Editor's note: Looking Back features the work of scholars using primary-source visual and textual documents. The column seeks interesting historical photographs accompanied by brief essays that speak to each photograph's context and implications for contemporary nursing. See AJN's author guidelines at


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In 1912, AJN published a short story whose heroine, with sawdust bones and arms of unequal length, was called simply the "brown-eyed doll."1 After a long, lonely wait in a toy store, this doll was purchased to comfort a little girl who'd been hospitalized for an arm amputation-generating an instantaneous mutual sympathy between the two.

Figure. A row of dol... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. A row of dolls illustrates "nursing through the ages" at the city of Philadelphia's Philadelphia on Parade exhibition, May 9-18, 1935. The exhibit was prepared by students at the Philadelphia General Hospital School of Nursing. Photo courtesy of the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Philadelphia.

This story highlighted one of the important and highly visible roles dolls played in nursing care throughout much of the 20th century. Nurses caring for children commonly acknowledged dolls' ability to soothe, entertain, promote healthy emotional and mental development and physical healing, and teach their young patients about their illnesses, injuries, and care.2-4


However, nurses and dolls didn't collaborate only for the therapeutic benefit of children. Through much of the 20th century, they enjoyed a multifaceted, often very public relationship. Nurses proudly wrote of recuperating adults who made dolls as both diversion and occupational therapy. And nurses whose patients undertook craft making were said to engage in it themselves as recreation.5


Dolls also connected nurses to their profession's past. Classmates in one history of nursing course in the 1930s turned dime-store dolls into a display of historical nursing characters. Fabiola of ancient Rome, Civil War nurse Mother Angela, and even Sairey Gamp, the fictional inebriate nurse of Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, among many other notable nurses, were carefully researched and recreated, reportedly to much admiration.6 Students from the Philadelphia General Hospital School of Nursing undertook a similar endeavor (pictured).7


In addition to teaching nursing students about their profession's history, dolls also helped them learn essential skills. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of these dolls was the Chase Hospital Doll, a precursor to the modern SimMan. Complete with an injection site on the arm and an internal reservoir for urethral, vaginal, and rectal treatments, the life-size female Chase doll, introduced early in the 20th-century, was instrumental in educating countless nursing students of the era.8 It was soon supplemented with various child-size manikins and, at the request of the U.S. Army in the 1940s, a male counterpart.


The hospital doll was often a point of pride among training schools. Indeed, depictions of training school demonstration rooms were incomplete without a nod, in word or in photograph, to the school's Chase doll.9,10 In 1914 St. Luke's Training School for Nurses in New York described its homemade hospital doll-a "cheap and satisfactory" model-and offered interested parties the opportunity to purchase the pattern for making their own, with all proceeds going to the school's alumni scholarship fund.11


Nurses used dolls to raise funds in other instances as well. In 1904 the Graduate Nurses' Club of New York Hospital hosted a bazaar to eliminate debt incurred in the construction of its new clubhouse. A booth featuring dolls adorned in various costumes was a noted success. By the end of the event, even with their prices "all the way up to twenty-five dollars, not a little lady was left."12


Beginning in the 1950s, published mentions of nursing's connection with and use of dolls began to diminish, and they eventually faded from the professional literature. Today they can be appreciated in nursing history museums. One doll of historical significance, made in the 1850s by a British soldier grateful for the care he received from Florence Nightingale during her time at Scutari, Turkey, was loaned to the National Headquarters of the American Red Cross in Washington, DC, in 1918 and displayed in the organization's museum.13 Today, nursing museums, such as the Museum of Nursing History in Philadelphia, collect and display nursing dolls. The history of nursing is intimately connected to these cultural artifacts. Dolls remind us of our cultural heritage, uniquely contextualizing the 20th-century nursing experience.




1. Bradley G. The little sick girl and the brown-eyed doll. Am J Nurs 1912;13(3):187-8. [Context Link]


2. Murphy LM. Entertaining sick children. Am J Nurs 1910;10(10):734-6. [Context Link]


3. Harris MR. Mary's doll has a gastrostomy, too. Am J Nurs 1957;57(4):486-7. [Context Link]


4. Sister Mary Roberta. A doll goes to surgery. Am J Nurs 1963;63(11):82. [Context Link]


5. Fitzsimmons LW. Handcrafts. Am J Nurs 1938;38(2):147-52. [Context Link]


6. Pruis EC. Dolls illustrate history of nursing. Am J Nurs 1935;35(12):1137-8. [Context Link]


7. [no author]. Medical Philadelphia on parade. Pa Med J 1935;39:877-8. [Context Link]


8. Herrmann EK. Remembering Mrs. Chase. Before there were Smart Hospitals and Sim-Men, there was "Mrs. Chase." Imprint 2008;55(2):52-5. [Context Link]


9. Bloomfield AR. A demonstration room. Am J Nurs 1916;16(8):705-7. [Context Link]


10. Davis HE. A workable nursing laboratory. Am J Nurs 1932;32(4):387-91. [Context Link]


11. Bridge HL. A home-made hospital doll. Am J Nurs 1914;14(11):986-7. [Context Link]


12. [no author]. The New York Hospital Club bazaar. Am J Nurs 1905;5(4):242-4. [Context Link]


13. Noyes CD. An historic doll. Am J Nurs 1928;28(5):470. [Context Link]