Although they may appear to be innocuous collections of school memories, yearbooks have fueled major political controversies in recent months. Whether it be the racist photograph of a student in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page or Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook jokes about drinking and sex, decades-old school publications have returned to public scrutiny for politicians, and it’s guaranteed that Northam’s will not be the last.
But these shocking pages aren’t as much of an outlier as they may have seemed. During my research on women in medicine in the 20th century, I came across the seemingly peculiar incident of a Playboy centerfold in a medical school yearbook. I soon discovered similar pages in yearbooks from this time across the United States. The books — as yearbooks always do — reflected the contemporaneous culture of the institutions that published them. In medical school in the 1960s and ’70s, that culture was often roiled by a backlash against women and minorities, as the medical world increasingly opened for people other than white men.
My research found that editors at that time deliberately deployed sexism in yearbooks as women fought to enter coeducational medical schools in higher numbers. In 1965, women made up less than 10 percent of medical college matriculants. By 1975, that figure had increased to nearly 25 percent. To wrestle with the significance of this change, predominantly male yearbook editors drew upon the template and vocabulary of Playboy magazine.
If you flick through the 1969 yearbook from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, you’ll find a centerfold featuring a naked model wearing only a nurse’s cap, posed on a bed contemplating medical diagrams of vaginal surgery. This image was far from unique. In the same year, the University of Kansas medical school yearbook adopted a “PlayDoc” theme, with a front cover showing a blond, humanized and feminized illustration of the Jayhawk mascot in a white coat, as well as Playboy-style and centerfold features. Medical school yearbooks most explicitly associated this sexual imagery with nursing.
That “sexy nurse” trope had become a staple of American culture by midcentury, because of wartime propaganda and pornography.