Despite facing manifold social and educational barriers, British asylum nurses across the long nineteenth century articulated distinctive professional identities as a means of leveraging their position in the medical hierarchy. This article draws upon a corpus of previously unattributed contributions to the Asylum News (1897–1919) – one of the first journals produced for the edification of asylum workers – to illustrate the diversity of medical personae developed and disseminated by these employees in the Edwardian era. Through scientific and creative works, nurses engaged with the pressing social and medical debates of the day, in the process exposing a heterogeneous intellectual culture. Moreover, as their writings attest, for some ambitious nurses these pretensions to intellectual authority prompted claims for medical autonomy, driving agitation on the hospital wards. The article thus strengthens claims for the ‘cultural agency’ of asylum workers and offers new insights into the cultural antecedents of professionalisation and trade unionism.