Corky Nixon is a patient in a ward of amputees in a military hospital for casualties of the Korean War. He has lost both legs. The head nurse on the ward has been given the nickname "Old Ironpuss" because she is so fierce and strict and unattractive, showing, as Corky says, "no warmth, no sympathy, no concern" (131). By implication, she is unfeminine. All the patients fear and hate her.

On Christmas Eve, a severely injured patient, Hancock, is brought in. He is conscious but catatonic. Corky is outraged that "Old Ironpuss" should be taking care of Hancock (he says that so sick a patient should get "the best damn-looking nurse in Christendom"!). Corky tries to get Hancock to talk, but is interrupted when the nurse comes in and berates Hancock for being such a difficult patient. Corky is outraged and complains to the colonel, who then points out that Hancock, reacting to the nurse's diatribe, has roused himself, talked back, and begun to recover.

He tells Corky that in cases like this, kindness and sympathy don't work and that the best treatment is the provocation of anger. Corky accepts this, and decides to collaborate with the nurse by having all the men in the ward stage the loud singing of Christmas carols with bawdy new lyrics, ostensibly to irritate her. In the midst of this chaotic display of good spirits, we see "Old Ironpuss" listening to their spirited defiance, and then turn away, alone, weeping.


This sentimental story presents a stereotypical view of the fierce and unsympathetic head nurse, military in her efficiency. It argues that such fierceness, a kind of fifties version of "tough love," can have therapeutic effects on the patient, and that the nurse who can conceal caring traits, which the story presents as naturally feminine, will be a more effective professional, though a failure as a woman.

The end of the story suggests the price of this performance for the nurse, hated and isolated, prevented from creating attachments with her patients or co-workers. A useful source for discussions both about images of nurses and about alternative views of caring and empathy.


The anthology is part of a Garland series, The History of American Nursing. First published in Saturday Evening Post 223 (12 May 1951).

Primary Source

American Nurses in Fiction: An Anthology of Short Stories



Place Published

New York




Barbara Melosh

Page Count