Comic books and genre novels have always derived directly from popular culture, usually directly or indirectly from other media such as movies and TV programs. So it’s not surprising that in the early 1960s, when there were two hit TV shows featuring romantic doctors, “Ben Casey” and “Dr. Kildare,” there were more nurse romance comics published then ever before or since. At the same time, nurse romances in paperback originals also were at their most widespread.
There had been both before. Undoubtedly, the popular stage musical and movie, “South Pacific,” whose heroine was a nurse, inspired some. But “South Pacific” was a 1950s phenomenon. And Cherry Ames, whose nursing adventures were serialized in books as were the Nancy Drew stories, wasn’t in itself a big enough media event to cause the sudden blossoming of nurse romances. So it is more likely that the glut of nurse novels and the handful of nurse comics of the early 1960s were the direct result of the hit TV doctor programs. Television was at its most universal; by then most families had TVs. Since there were only three networks and the occasional local station, the mass audience for any show was in the dozens of millions. Contrast that to today, when a cable network will declare something a hit if it has a mere one million viewers. A couple of hit TV shows then could cause plenty of popular buzz and imitators.
For women who liked the darkly handsome, beefy type, there was Vince Edwards as Dr. Ben Casey. And for women who preferred the more lean and restrained blond type, there was Richard Chamberlain with bleached hair as Dr. Kildare. Magazines of all sorts ran thousands of photos of them and the usual silly articles. But that was not enough. A plethora of romances, almost all of them slim paperback originals, were rushed into publication featuring nurses as the protagonists. (There actually were a couple of nurse TV shows later, “The Nurses,” and “Julia,” but they were not romance oriented.) These romance novels and comics did not star doctors because men did not read romances, and women back then usually were nurses, not doctors themselves. (Yes, there were newspaper strips featuring each of the TV doctors, Ben Casey, drawn by Neal Adams, and Dr. Kildare, drawn by Ken Bald. Again, not romances.)
I’m too young to know what actual nurses were doing in the early 1960s, but according to the titles of these books, many of them were Private Duty nurses, Airport nurses, Dude Ranch nurses, Campus nurses, World’s Fair nurses, Amusement Park nurses, etc. They were helping doctors in clinics, in factories, at Cape Canaveral, at logging camps, in small towns, and oh, yes—at hospitals. Some nurses were students struggling to learn the ropes. Some were experienced in their field. Some fell for cranky doctors. Others for the boy next door. But all of them were young women whose profession entitled them to a degree of respect, tempered by the authority of a rigid power structure above them. Those “R.N.” initials (for “Registered Nurse”) were important because at the time, that was the highest level of professional credential a nurse could attain. Today we have nurse practitioners, who are only a step down from doctors themselves. And we have lots of female doctors. But a registered nurse was a big deal in the tiny niche of women’s professions back then.
Harlequin already had a long history of publishing nurse romances by the early 1960s. It continues to do so to this day. Its most popular author of all time, the late Betty Neels, wrote nurse romances and that’s about it. Usually, her nurse heroines were in love with rather brusque and unromantic, often distant and cold doctors. But eventually, true love triumphed and they found each other. Harlequin did not have a large presence in the US in the early 1960s, not even alongside the paperback originals sold exclusively in drug stores and other non-book shops. So let’s not talk more about Harlequin, because when it came to choosing a nurse romance, the Harlequin books were not commonly available for comparison. Instead, offerings by Ace Books, Dell Candlelight, Popular Library, MacFadden, and many other major and minor American paperback publishers flooded the paperback book outlets. A good source that shows just how many publishers were involved is the University of Wisconsin’s Nurse Romance Cover of the Week site.
Nurse romances as novels tended to contrast one kind of suitor with another. In Ski Resort Nurse, by Jane L. Sears, for instance, the heroine has the opportunity to marry a very wealthy man. He temporarily sweeps her off her feet with his display of power and glamour. But he turns out to have a fatal flaw, and she goes back to the earnest young doctor she really loves. It’s virtually the same setup in story after story, probably reflecting the reality that most nurses did not come from upperclass social settings and the readers of such romances could not imagine their nurse heroines climbing the social ladder so precipitously. Also, back then, it was considered a virtue to marry the poor but honest man. In today’s more openly materialistic American society, I wonder if that would still play?
Scholarly sites and nursing sites take nurse romances seriously, tut-tutting over the potentially negative stereotypes of nurses portrayed in these stories, but largely passing over the social dynamics in them. The typical nurse’s anomalous position as having authority but also limited by authority, for instance, is scarcely mentioned.
There were nurse romance comic books, but not a lot. Charlton Comics published a half-dozen nurse romance comics using their typical dreadful production values and so-so writing. The occasional good bit of artwork by Dick Giordano of later superhero comic fame was always a surprise. Scott Shaw’s Oddball Comics site describes a one-shot nurse romance title from Charlton, Registered Nurse. It featured Cynthia Doyle, a character used in another of their titles, Cynthia Doyle, Nurse in Love, one of whose covers is on the Cherry Ames web site.
The In/Visibility of Nurses in Cyberculture web site mentions more nurses in the comics, including Betsy Crane, Linda Carter, Linda Lark, and more. But there aren’t any details about their stories, and finding obscure romance comics today is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I wish people would put more information about them on the web.
An excellent roundup article appears on the Nursing Spectrum web site, “Comic Book Care — A History of Nurses in Comic Books” by Don Vaughan.
Lois Lane’s fashionable volunteer work in a hospital, complete with nurse’s uniform, is given mention in this article. But I did not find any notice taken of the straight on nurse romances that appeared in DC Comics, chiefly the beautifully drawn and achingly romantic series in Young Love, “The Private Diary of Nurse Mary Robin, R. N.” Mary’s tearful romantic adventures made the cover of Young Love Comics pretty much every issue for a year or so. But alas, Mary kept losing her true loves. Gorgeously drawn by Johnny Romita (of later Spider-Man fame), each of these short romantic tales featured different locales and different love interests, ending more or less unhappily with Mary uncoupled even if other characters walked off together. Supposedly, she finally found and kept her true love, but an appealing element of the series was that she repeatedly fell in love and lost her love, and then tried again. This is unheard of now in romances, where the happily ever after ending dominates.
The last attempt at nurse romance comics was in the 1970s, when the vogue was long over and most of the female audience for comics had drifted away. Night Nurse, from Marvel Comics, was a curious amalgam. True to the concerns of the early 1970s, the stories put strong emphasis on social issues and criminal elements as well as on romantic dilemmas. But Night Nurse was drawn by a romance artist, Winslow Mortimer, who specialized in very soft-looking, ultra-feminine heroines. So its heroines (there were three) tended not to pack much visual punch. It was like watching a kitten try to cope with a rotweiller. The title was canceled quickly, probably too quickly for detailed sales reports to trickle in. And so ended nurse romances in the comics.
Nurse romances survived as a subgenre of romance novels, much changed of course from the stereotypes of the early 1960s. Today the subgenre is generally referred to as medical romances and features modern male-female dynamics, with the heroine as likely to be a doctor as to be a nurse or some other medical professional. Yet despite the recent success of TV medical series such as ER and Gray’s Anatomy, there has never been a widespread resurgence of the fashion for medical romance.