A brief history of nursing badges
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Stephen Callander-Grant RN FSA Scot
BNHBS Archivist

People have worn insignia to signify membership of a specific society for thousands of years. Roman soldiers wore isignia indicating to which legion they belonged and which rank they held. Religious Orders have for many years presented their professed members with the insignia of their order as a sign of belonging. And of course campaign medals and bravery awards have presented to serving service men and women and civilians for hundreds of years.

Nursing badges can trace their origin back to the mid to late 19th century with its passion for campaign medals and decorations. Nursing at that time was not a forward thinking profession and many hospital nurses lacked any form of formal training. Hospital authorities sought to improve the standards of care in their institutions and as a result, many introduced competitions for their nurses - presenting those obtaining highest examination marks or distinction in ward work with a suitable medal for wear with their ward clothes. This became popular and many of the earliest nurses' badges resemble military medals. The tradition of presenting top students with a distinctive medal persisted in some hospitals until the late 1980s.

After the introduction of the Nurses' Registration Act of 1919, the new General Nursing Councils presented all newly registered Nurses with a badge. In the 1950s all newly enrolled nurses were presented with a slightly different version of these "state badges". The Central Midwives Board began issuing badges earlier in the century. All of these bages became obsolete with the creation of the UKCC in 1983 who decided not to issue a new "state badge". This was an unpopular decision.

In addition to the "state badges", many hospitals and schools of nursing presented student nurses passing their finals with a "hospital badge". These were designed in hundreds of styles. Each one reflecting the heraldic arms of the hospital, town, county, founder, or drawing on tradition nursing symbols: the lamp and book.Each badge was a symbol of the wearer's level of achievement and were greatly coveted by their recipients.

Some hospitals required their nurses to sit for an additional examination to qualify for the badge - making it even more precious. In some cases, the hospital examination was harder than the State final!

In the late 1980s, changes in the form of nurse training meant that many schools of nursing were amalgamated, eventually many became university faculties of nursing. With the introduction of these changes, many badges ceased to be presented. Some universities and colleges have designed new badges reflecting current changes in nursing. Some steadfastly refuse to design a badge, stating that history graduates do not receive a badge so why should nursing?

It would seem that the traditonal nurses badge is becoming a thing of the past, which is a great pity. The nurses' badge indicated that the wearer was competent in their duties. It gave the wearer a sense of "corporate pride" in their hospital. Most importantly, it reflected two, three or four years of hard, dedicated work caring for the sick.

BNHBS is committed to preserving these beautiful badges for future generations as an important aspect of the history of the nursing profession.

The Society welcomes donations of nurses' badges to enhance our archive. Badges may be sent the BNHBS at the address listed on the contacts page of this website. To prevent damage to the badge in transit, it is recommended that any badges are well wrapped. All badges donated are acknowledged and listed in exhibition catalogues.

Copyright: Stephen Callander-Grant 2000