Florence Nightingale (1985) (TV)




Director:  Daryl Duke

Starring:  Jaclyn Smith (Florence Nightingale), Claire Bloom (Fanny Nightingale), Timothy Dalton (Richard Milnes), Timothy West (Russell), Peter McEnery (Sidney Herbert), Stephen Chase (Dr. Sutherland), Ann Thornton (Parthe Nightingale), Jeremy Brett (William Nightingale), Fanny Carby (Thin Lady), Richenda Carey (Committee Lady), Jeremy Child (Dr. Hall), Madeleine Christie (Mrs. Clover), Brian Cox (Dr. McGrigor), Patrick Drury (Henry Nicholson), Lesley Dunlop (Joanne), Michael Elwyn (Dr. Menzies), Andrea Evans (Mrs. Brent), Julian Fellowes (Charles), Harry Fielder (Background artist/extra), Erin Geraghty (Iris), Carol Gillies (Nurse Davis), Lorna Heilbron (Selina), Wolf Kahler (Gunther), Denis Lill (Dr. Howe), Derek Lyons (Dying Soldier with Florence), Jacqueline Reddin (Mary Kennedy), Emma Watson (Elizabeth Herbert), Marjorie Yates (Trude).




Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

1840s, England.  It is the time of the writer Charles Dickens and of two social classes: the very rich and the very poor.  It is also a time of medical ignorance.  To fracture a leg or an arm is to lose it. 

At the ball of the British nobility.  Henry Nicholson is very smitten with the young and pretty Florence Nightingale.  But the handsome Richard Milnes is also interested in Florence. The next day Richard shows up at Florence's house unannounced.  Her mother protects her from the unconventional act by claiming that she invited Richard to their house.  Richard and Florence go horseback riding. 

At the age of seventeen, Florence heard a call from God that she should serve humanity in some way.  But she is not sure what her true mission should be.  This is taken care of when she meets Dr. Howe and his wife Julia Ward Howe who work with the blind at the Perkins School in Boston, Massachusetts.  Dr. Howe tells Florence:  "If you have a passion, the only way to satisfy it is to pursue it." 

Florence decides to devote herself to nursing.  The problem with this is that nursing has a very low social reputation.  Most people believe that the nurses in the hospitals for the poor are little more than prostitutes.  Women of the nobility do not become nurses; it is just "not done".  She visits the Middlesex Hospital and is shocked to see the filth and squalor of the place.  A patient experiences a painful death with Florence standing by helplessly. 

Richard asks Florence to marry him.  Once again she says that she was called to heal.  She now wants to go to a school in Germany known as Kaiserworth where they train nuns to become nurses.  She asks Richard for his help and he agrees.  At Kaiserworth Florence learns about hygiene and nutrition and that nursing is a science as well as health care.  Her father is mad at her, but she protests to him that "no one we know helps the poor"  Florence finally wins her father over to her side. 

Florence meets Sidney Herbert, Secretary of War, who is also very interested in hospitals.  He explains to Florence that nursing in a hospital is seen as disgraceful.  But Florence will not be discouraged.  Herbert finally tells her about a job at the Hospital for Distressed Gentlemen.  She interviews for a position and the women board members also try to discourage her.  But on July 23, 1853, she is appointed the Superintendent of Nursing for the Holly Street Hospital for Gentle Women. 

Florence does such great work at the hospital that soon her success is the talk of London.  She has become a sort of heroine.  Richard still wants to marry, her but she tells him "I shall never marry". 

The Crimean War begins.  Half the casualties for the British occur within the hospitals.  At Scutari in Turkey the hospital there is a living hell.  Florence decides to hire and train a group of nurses to work in the military hospital in Turkey.  She interviews many women and gets her team together.  They also raise funds to buy nursing and medical supplies for the troops.   

November 4, 1854.  They arrive at Scutari.   It took a month to get to Turkey.  Florence and her nurses receive a terrible reception.  Dr. Menzies is the head of the hospital and he is of little help.  And Dr. Hall, the head of all the military hospitals, is even worse.  They exhibit obvious prejudice toward women and nursing.  They explain that no females have ever nursed in the British army.  Dr. Hall has very little charity in his heart.  He even forbids the use of chloroform to ease the pains of operations. 

Florence insists that Dr. McGregor give her a tour of his ward.  The situation is dire.  The floors are filthy and rats are common.  Dr. McGregor sighs that "only disaster will break the prejudice" against women nursing soldiers.  But Florence has an idea to get an "in" with the military.  She offers the services of her nurses to clean the hospital floors.  This act increases the regard for the nurses.

The Battle of Inkelman results in 1,000 wounded British soldiers.  Dr. Menzies is force to ask Florence for help.  She takes advantage of the disaster to ask a favor for a favor.  The doctor agrees to let the nurses do the work for which they were trained.

1855.  Some 2,000 soldiers died in the arms of Florence Nightingale.  She receives a visit from the newspaper writer William Russell who tells her that everyone knows her name.  He adds:  "You have brought order where there was chaos."  She becomes known as "the lady with the lamp" because the hospital is so dark that she has to use a lantern to see.  Back home her family reads the articles about her.  They are all extremely proud of Florence. 

Dr. Sutherland comes to inspect the conditions at the hospital and he meets Florence.  He is very impressed when she shows him the terrible conditions at the hospital.  She shows how the water supply for the hospital has to first pass through two dead horses.  The fumes from the sewer system come up from below and kill those bed-ridden patients nearest the vents. 

September 7, 1855.  Florence receives a letter from Richard saying that he will marry.  He finally gave up on the idea of ever being able to marry Florence.  Even though Florence thought she would never marry, she is still upset over the letter.  To Dr. Sutherland she describes her commitment to nursing a kind of curse:  "I didn't want to be this way."  The doctor says that she is afraid of love. 

Dr. Hall is very jealous of the fame of Florence Nightingale and he tries to remove her from her position.  Out of the forty nurses that originally came with her, there are only twelve survivors.  Florence travels to the battlefield in Russia to see Dr. Hall.  There she find more horrors.  There are hundreds of men who have gangrene because their wounds are not being cleaned promptly.  Talking with Dr. Hall she finds that he has no sympathy for her and her nurses.  He accuses her of spoiling the men because the British army needs men who can bear pain without flinching.  Florence is very frustrated, mad and exhausted and she faints in front of Dr. Hall. She has cholera. 

While she is recovering from her illness, the commander-in-chief of the army, Lord Raglan, visits her.  With him he brings a message from Queen Victoria.  The Queen asked the commander personally to visit Florence and give her a broach designed by the Queen herself in honor of her great work in nursing.  Florence also learns that she has been appointed the head of nursing of all the military hospitals.  (That, of course, gets Dr. Hall off her back.)

The war finally ends and Florence returns to her home.  She lived until the age of 90, living to serve others and advance the science and profession of nursing. 


Good movie.  Who knew how much prejudice there was against nurses?  Terrible prejudice considering nurses as little more than harlots.  And the prejudice in the army was shocking.  The head doctors would prefer to see soldiers die than let the nurses trained by Florence work in the military hospitals.  It is good to be reminded of the damages prejudice can cause and just how powerful it is as a social force.   Jaclyn Smith was very good as Florence Nightingale.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

Historical Background:


For the historical background see Lady with a Lamp (1951).




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