story of an unknown icon in France


His long life is a page of history. Feminist, combative, dedicated, gifted… Florence Nightingale (1830-1920) is considered the first nurse – before her, there were no qualified female staff. His methods, based on care and respect for strict hygiene, before Pasteur’s work on asepsis, would revolutionize the care given to the British wounded during the Crimean War (1853-1856), then to the sick in the public hospital, and save thousands of lives.

Famous throughout the British Empire, from 1854, to the point of being called as a consultant during the Civil War in the United States, from 1861, Florence Nightingale nevertheless remained almost unknown in France. To fill this gap, and to explain its cause, this documentary retraces its extraordinary destiny, using sometimes rare archive images, numerous battle scenes, testimonies and above all particularly neat reconstruction scenes.

Progressive choice

The film begins with the triggering event: the articles in the Times, by William Howard Russell, the first war correspondent sent to cover the conflict between the Turks, the British and the French against the Russian forces. For the first time, he describes the lamentable state of the Empire’s military hospitals: “It is unworthy that our soldiers are dying in such conditions,” he writes. The people are scandalized, the young Queen Victoria also.

A woman, Florence Nightingale, will then be sent to the military hospital of Scutari, near Constantinople (current Istanbul), with about forty nurses. This progressive choice may come as a surprise, but the young woman is not just anyone; almost a third of the film returns to his vocation followed since he was 16 years old.

On site, she will impose the cleaning of hands, sheets, the use of hot water. But also write reports and streamline procurement. It is then a bit long for the viewer, because of laudatory comments and monotonous speakers. However, it is better to hang on until the last part, devoted to his heritage.

The film then returns, in particular, to the history of the first two French nursing schools. The first opened in 1880, at the Salpêtrière in Paris, welcomed the greatest number, including students who could not read: it was a failure. The second, founded with the doctor Anna Hamilton, in Bordeaux, in 1901, takes up the principles of Florence Nightingale, namely that the students must be educated women who, at the end of 646 days of intense training, in two years, will be considered the equal of doctors.

The Bordeaux school remains today one of the most renowned in France, a country where, unlike others, nurses, even graduates, still do not have access to the status of researchers.

Florence Nightingale, the first of the nurses, by Aurine Crémieu (Fr., 2021, 90 min). art