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Nurses on film: a century of archives now online

From first world war propaganda to Call the Midwife, nursing has had a place on film for more than a century. Historian and journalist Chris Holme reviews some of the free highlights available online.
film

From first world war propaganda to Call the Midwife, nursing has had a place on film for more than a century. Historian and journalist Chris Holme reviews some of the free highlights available online

The growth of online archives has unlocked films showing how previous generations of nurses were depicted on camera.

There arent that many early examples of real-life nurses on film, but original footage can be viewed free at the click of a mouse.

It didnt get off to a great start, as one documentary shot in 1917 by the French armys film propaganda unit shows. It depicts nurses at Villers-Cotterts, a large clearing station for the Scottish Womens Hospital at Royaumont in northern France. It was the first of several women's hospitals set up by Elsie Inglis, a Scottish doctor and suffragist.

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From first world war propaganda to Call the Midwife, nursing has had a place on film for more than a century. Historian and journalist Chris Holme reviews some of the free highlights available online

The growth of online archives has unlocked films showing how previous generations of nurses were depicted on camera.

There aren’t that many early examples of real-life nurses on film, but original footage can be viewed free at the click of a mouse.

It didn’t get off to a great start, as one documentary shot in 1917 by the French army’s film propaganda unit shows. It depicts nurses at Villers-Cotterêts, a large clearing station for the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont in northern France. It was the first of several women's hospitals set up by Elsie Inglis, a Scottish doctor and suffragist. She offered it to the British military authorities but they declined.

‘There aren’t that many early examples of real-life nurses on film, but original footage can be viewed free at the click of a mouse’

France subsequently took Dr Inglis up on her offer, and 30 of the Royaumont women went on to be awarded the Croix de Guerre, the French decoration for bravery in war. Among them was sister Catherine O’Rorke, who was arrested with British nurse Edith Cavell in 1915 and later freed.

The film staged a phoney operation and showed nurses doing menial, routine tasks. Perhaps this helped frame the reaction of the women of Royaumont – when they saw the film they hated it.

Transformed by war

Edith Cavell helped more than 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the first world war. After being arrested by the Germans she was found guilty of 'assisting the enemy' and sentenced to death. On 12 October 1915, she was executed by firing squad.

Cavell’s execution triggered international outrage, later fuelled by newsreel coverage of her state funeral at Westminster Abbey, which can be viewed here.

Service At Westminster Abbey - Nurse Cavell (1915)

The first world war transformed nursing, and the public’s perception of it. As well as physical memorials to the dead, some nursing posts were funded, including a district nursing post in the parishes of Kintail and Glenshiel in the Scottish Highlands.

Money for the post was raised by The Clan Macrae Society as ‘this was considered a better form of memorial to the gallant clansmen who had fallen than wasting money on bricks and mortar’.

In 1926, this post was held by Elizabeth McPhee, who used her BSA motorbike to do her rounds.

mcphee
A photograph of district nurse Elizabeth McPhee on her motorbike
in the Scottish Highlands, part of an online collection.

The photograph, which is actually a postcard, is the first selection of American nurse Michael Zwerdling’s brilliant collection now available online here.

Silent era stars

Unlikely as it sounds, two British Queen’s Nurses were film stars of the silent era. Betty Lester and Annie Mackinnon, who worked for the Frontier Nursing Service, appear in the film The Forgotten Frontier.

The Frontier Nursing Service was founded in 1925 by Mary Breckinridge to attract adventurous British nurses to work in a remote area of Kentucky in the US.

The film, which was shot in 1930 by Mary’s cousin Marvin Breckinridge, is unique in cinematic history – a feature-length silent documentary running for 71 minutes, it shows the nurses doing various activities, including running a school vaccination clinic. Betty first appears at 53 minutes and Annie ten minutes later.

Many public information or propaganda films were made in the 1940s to boost recruitment at a time of chronic nurse shortages.

‘Coping with technology is nothing new for nurses – a film from 1965 shows Leicester midwives out and about in Morris Minor cars getting to grips with walkie-talkies’

The short film Personal Episode tells the story of a student teacher who contracted tuberculosis, quit university and then opted for nursing.

A nursing career seemed distinctly second best at that time, but within ten years, the university in question – Edinburgh – would become the first in Europe to introduce degree-level courses for nurses. Along with Manchester, it created the foundation for undergraduate nursing we know today.

This was also the golden era of cinema newsreels, with very short films including one from 1957 that shows midwife Elsie Walkerdine of Deptford retiring after 4,000 deliveries – that’s two for every working week.

Coping with new technology is nothing new for nurses. One film from 1965 records the trials and tribulations of Leicester midwives out and about in Morris Minor cars getting to grips with walkie-talkies.

Simple and moving

The changing role of district nurses is well documented in five films sourced for the 150th anniversary of district nursing. Look out for the 1974 showing of Roy Hudd, then a young comedian, cycling around London’s East End with nurse Helena Kercher.

Television programmes such as Call the Midwife – one of the most successful BBC dramas of recent years – mean these are now familiar scenes. The BBC’s Casualty has been running for more than three decades, and more recent fly-on-the-wall documentaries, such as 24 Hours in A&E, mean hardly a night goes by when nurses aren’t on screen.

But it doesn’t have to be a big budget production to show how much the public values nurses, as demonstrated by my personal favourite, Margaret’s story from the Patient Voices series.

An exquisitely simple and moving narrative, it shows how quality nursing care, backed up by telehealth technology, can help older people stay in their own homes and live independently.


Chris Holme is a freelance historian and a former Reuters Foundation fellow in medical journalism

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