Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital.
Caption from LIFE. Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital.Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, 1938.
Caption from LIFE. Student nurses at New York's Roosevelt Hospital.
Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Celebrate National Nurses Week With a LIFE Cover Story on Nursing in the 1930s

May 06, 2015

National Nurses Week, which begins May 6, recognizes the millions of nurses who make up the backbone of the American healthcare system. And the annual shout-out is more than warranted: A 2014 survey of more than 3,000 nurses found respondents to be stressed out, underslept and -- at least in their own estimation -- underpaid.

When LIFE featured the profession on its cover in 1938, the career was in a moment of transition. “Once almost any girl could be a nurse,” LIFE explained, “But now, with many state laws to protect the patient, nursing has become an exacting profession.” A candidate needed not only a background in science, but also a combination of “patience, devotion, tact and the reassuring charm that comes only from a fine balance of physical health and adjusted personality.”

Nurses also needed, as they still do, stamina. A typical day in the life of a Roosevelt Hospital School of Nursing student who had been capped -- meaning she had successfully completed the probationary period -- was described as follows:

Her day begins early. She rises at 6, breakfasts at 6:30, reports to duty at 6:55, has lunch sometime between 12 and 1:30. The rest of the day is consumed with ward duty, two hours of classes, three hours of rest or study. At 7 p.m. she is free to go out on parties, read in the library, dance in the reception room with her fellow nurses or make herself a late supper in the nurses’ kitchen.

The photo essay, shot by Alfred Eisenstaedt, was an earnest nod to a group of people responsible not only for the well-being of individual patients, but also the public health of a city and a nation. Their duty, after all, was “to secure the health of future generations.”

January 31, 1938 cover of LIFE magazine. Alfred Eisenstaedt—LIFE Magazine 

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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