A collage of images from films about nursing.

Screening the Nurse: Film, Fear, and Narrative from the 1940s to the 1970s

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger David Cantor, PhD, an investigador (researcher) at the Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social (IDES), Buenos Aires Argentina and an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park, to explore five films about nursing produced between the 1940s and 1970s now highlighted in our Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM project. In the mid-20th century, American nursing leaders produced and deployed the motion picture as a modern tool of education, training, and recruitment. Hundreds of films were made, including informational, newsreel, and training movies for a variety of audiences. 

In the early decades of the twentieth century, American nursing leaders came to see the motion picture as a quintessentially modern instrument of education, training, and recruitment. In their view, movies were a powerful tool to transform public opinion about nursing, to instruct new recruits in the mysteries of nursing practice, and to keep the qualified nurse abreast of new developments in the field. The result was that many hundreds of films were produced by nurses, hospitals, health departments, and nursing schools that aimed to recruit men and women into the profession, to teach nurses about the ideas and techniques of their field, and to educate the public about the role of the nurse in health care.

This essay discusses a selection of rare historical nursing movies, originally chosen by Anne Marie Rafferty, Rosemary Cresswell and David Cantor for a series of film shows screened in the late 2000s.[*] It includes educational, newsreel, and training movies aimed at a variety of audiences, and produced from the 1940s to the 1970s by an assortment of private, philanthropic, professional, and governmental organizations. Together, they illustrate the varied uses of the nursing educational film in the mid-to-late twentieth century; the complex cinematic representations of nurses and nursing during this period; and the roles of sexuality, gender, and surveillance in these movies.  I conclude with some observations on the different narratives deployed in these films, and on the use of fear within nursing films.

The Army Nurse

A close up of a woman's face in a surgical mask.DATE: 1945
LENGTH: 15 min
DIRECTOR: Unidentified
PRODUCER/PUBLISHER: Army Pictorial Service Signal Corps, U.S. War Office
CATEGORY: Educational & Instructional, Sound, Black & White

Released in the closing months of World War II, this film explores the work of the Army nurse in part from the perspective of a wounded soldier (and includes a cameo by the actor Gary Cooper). Intended to be shown to a variety of audiences—including servicemen, nurses, and potential recruits to nursing—it has a reassuring message about the skill and effectiveness of the Army nursing service. It also comforts its audiences with a story about the therapeutic uses of femininity.

The film opens with a soldier wounded in action. Coming out of delirium, the first person he sees is a female Army nurse, who smiles at him and gives him a conspiratorial, welcoming wink. This therapeutic wink is the start of his road to recovery and provides a cue for the narrator to talk about the uses of femininity in the healing process. He explains to his audience that women mean safety, comfort, and home to the wounded man: the nurse’s touch and her voice instill hope. Within each nurse is the tenderness of all women, he claims, that which is found in mother, sister, and friend—roles that dampen any suggestion of sexual invitation in the nurse’s wink or touch. Here is a feminized version of medical surveillance: the welcoming, comforting, caring surveillance of women who watch and monitor wounded men throughout their treatment.

Two other narratives in the film are related to this theme of the therapeutic uses of femininity. The first is a story of how Army nurses adjust to the masculine world of Army life. The film shows how female nurses undergo four weeks of grueling basic training, and how, once in the field, they share the same life as the GI: Army clothes, Army beds, and Army rations. But the movie also shows how they adapt Army paraphernalia and life to their own purposes, as when, for example, they turn Army helmets into instruments for cooking, washing, and self-beautification. The film portrays these women as dedicated nurses, willing to sacrifice themselves to the war effort. It also sets out a place for a caring, tender, watchful femininity amid the pain of war, and within military and medical organizations dominated by men. As the narrator puts it, the Army nurse “lives roughly, and works gently.”

The second story focuses on how nurses help to define the roles of their male surgical colleagues and patients. Thus, the movie defines the male surgeon, in part, in relation to the female Army nurse: Where the surgeon’s technical skill saves a man’s life, the Army nurse’s loving care helps him to live. She “completes” the surgeon, much as wives were said to “complete” their husbands. She also helps her patients decide on the sort of men they want to be. Inspired by the prospect of an Army nurse’s care, the narrator asks the wounded soldier (and the film’s audience): “Which man will you be? The one who gets hurt and dies, or the one who gets hurt and lives?”

To read the full essay and to see the films go to NLM’s Medicine on Screen, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM’s collection.

David Cantor, PhD is an investigador (researcher) at the Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social (IDES), Buenos Aires Argentina and an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park. His scholarly work focuses on the history of medicine in the twentieth century, most recently the histories of cancer, stress and medical film. He was for several years affiliated with the National Library of Medicine and also worked in the Office of History, National Institutes of Health. His publications include Reinventing Hippocrates (2002); Cancer in the Twentieth Century (2008); Meat, Medicine and Human Health in the Twentieth Century (2010), co-edited with Christian Bonah and Matthias Dörries; Stress, Shock, and Adaptation in the Twentieth Century (2014), co-edited with Edmund Ramsden; and Health Education Films in the Twentieth Century (2018), co-edited with Christian Bonah and Anja Laukötter. He is series coeditor of Social Histories of Medicine published by Manchester University Press.

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