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Correspondence with BBC executives re Nightingale programming

Mark Thompson
director general, BBC
May 15, 2010

Dear Mr Thompson

I am writing about a major failing of the BBC in its “documentary” programming, on Florence Nightingale, for which there are now two full films on her which contain numerous flagrant errors and much hostility, and one on a contemporary, Mary Seacole (who certainly deserves celebration of her achievements) but which took the opportunity to bash Nightingale. All three are examples of incompetence (gross factual errors) and lack of integrity (nasty supposed revelations of an icon). Might I add missed opportunity, for what Nightingale actually did and said is of great interest, and much even pertinent to the problems of today, not only in Britain but in the United States and Canada, and indeed around the world.

The errors of the 2001 film I wrote about to the then director and got no answer. The 2008 film is possibly worse. I sent a critique to Timesonline about it (link preceding).

In the case of the Seacole film an encounter is presented in which Nightingale is condescending to Seacole. Apparently the two women did meet briefly in Scutari, although there is no record of it in Nightingale’s hand. Seacole reported it in her memoirs, showing it to have been entirely positive (she asked Nightingale to be able to stay over night and Nightingale found a bed for her).

The letters, with examples of factual errors and dubious statements, for all three, are on the website of The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale:

The least that the BBC could do now would be to remove the two films on Nightingale from the documentary and docudrama classification, and clearly identify them as semi-fictional. The Seacole film similarly should get a note that the encounter dramatized in the film was fictional.

This year is not only the 100th anniversary of Nightingale’s death, but the 150th of the founding of the Nightingale School, the first secular training school for nurses in the world, and the publication of her most famous book, Notes on Nursing. Last year, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species was a real celebration of accomplishment. There is nothing equivalent for Nightingale this year, I suspect in large measure thanks to the nasty portrayal she has had in recent years. (Press accounts of your films were even more negative than the films themselves.) Millions of people saw these films and read about them, in such respectable outlets as The Sunday Times and The Guardian. The BBC is still thought by many to be a reliable source.

Perhaps you might see that it is time to reboot Nightingale. Her vision of public health care, that the poor should get as high quality care as the rich, might be worth a look. Her concerns about the dangers of hospitals is surely an ongoing issue. Her methodological advances, still much celebrated by statisticians and users of statistics, who were not taken in by the Nightingale bashers, are again worth a look. (I understand that BBC4 might be doing something on her “diagrams.”) Her fondness for art and music (and what art, what music) might be of interest to many. Her views on the status and role of women (which your programs have misrepresented) would interest many. Nightingale greatly influenced nursing in the United States and still is of great interest there. Indeed a good documentary on Nightingale would be of interest around the world.

Your sincerely
Lynn McDonald
university professor emerita, and
director, Collected Works of Florence Nightingale

See also correspondence with BBC executives re: 2001, 2005 and 2008 programmes; correspondence with the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (link preceding); the author's article in the Times Literary Supplement of 6 December 2000 (link preceding); and the author's Timesonline critique of the 2008 programme.


Letter in response to 2001 BBC2 programme: Florence Nightingale: Iron Maiden

Director, BBC Television
March 6, 2002

Dear Director:

July 17, 2001 BBC2 aired a program, Florence Nightingale: Iron Maiden, with an extraordinary number of factual errors and unsubstantiated statements. Overall, from the title to the end the treatment of Nightingale was bizarre and hostile. I am editing the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale and am making this statement on the basis of extensive reading of primary sources.

The assistant producer kindly forwarded my letters asking for sources for these apparently erroneous statements to the participants concerned, not one of whom provided any documentation to me. Her statement that the program contributed to “scholarly debate” proved not to be true, nor was there any debate on the program itself. My proposal is that the program should be more accurately labeled, as a piece of fiction. Possibly: Florence Nightingale, A Hostile and Fictitious Portrayal?

The comparison with Margaret Thatcher, in the title and at the beginning and end of the program is ludicrous and misleading. Nightingale was a left leaning Liberal, a strong advocate of a public health care system, and she loathed Conservatives.

Apparently one error is being corrected, the contention that Nightingale signed a petition against the vote for women, but what about the error that says she opposed it?

I am writing to complain also about the demeaning treatment of Nightingale, and indeed other women, on the program, as women, by the use of first names and nicknames, while men were given titles and honorifics. (Nightingale was called by her first name even at age ninety.) I pointed this out to the assistant producer, who replied that there was nothing to this, that it was a mere coincidence. I asked her for your policy about sexist portrayal, but was unsuccessful in getting her or anyone to forward me a code. I asked her for examples of calling men by their first names and women with honorifics etc., in other programs in the Reputations series. She did not answer.

Perhaps you could have some research done? I would be interested indeed to learn of these counter examples, for surely there must be some if it is simply a random matter whether one uses first names, nicknames or honorifics with people. Do you have a policy statement, programming code on this, i.e. forbidding demeaning treatment of women or requiring equal dignity by gender (or race etc.). Would it be acceptable to call white persons by Mr, Mrs etc. with surnames, while blacks get first names, “Uncle” etc.? Why is this all right with women? (In an earlier life I was president of the largest women’s organization in Canada, gave briefs of sex role stereotyping in the broadcast media, and served on a task force of the CRTC, Canada’s regulatory body in broadcasting, which dealt with this issue. I also attended workshops with CBC management which resulted in a code to stop this sort of things, back in the early 1980s. Does the BBC really consider this acceptable? Now?)

“Florence Nightingale: Iron Maiden,” errors and unsubstantiated points


Angela Bruce, “Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea,” BBC4 2005, and online, errors and questionable statements

The “cult of the lady of the lamp cast a shadow over a person of equal stature and significance.” The film calls Seacole a “doctor,” while she used the term “doctress,” for what might more commonly call a herbalist. The portrayal of Seacole is warm and positive (no objection there), but that of Nightingale is stilted and curt, contrary to all evidence. A fictitious encounter is given in which Nightingale is shown as condescending to Seacole. That Seacole was turned down by the War Office in London, with no involvement by Nightingale is not mentioned. Seacole’s own memoirs record the brief encounter in a perfectly amicable fashion. The memoirs also record a snippy encounter the previous day with Selina Bracebridge, followed by a courteous and helpful one the next day. But the film show only a negative encounter, and that attributed to Nightingale. That Seacole went to the Crimea with a business partner, Thomas Day, a relative of her late husband’s, is not mentioned, presumably to emphasize the “medical” part of her work.

Nightingale is described as having ruled “with an iron hand.” There is not mention of her terms of reference from the War Office or the requirements of the doctors, nor of the enormous kindness reported by other nurses, many doctors, officers and ordinary soldiers themselves.

Seacole is said to have done “hands on” work, Nightingale not. The iconic “lamp” imagery, related so positively by soldiers, is her turned into a negative. “We could only kiss her shadow,” a soldier complains. Nightingale is said to have “visited” the Crimea only twice; in fact she made three trips, for about six months, or a third of her time at the war. The great difference between the two women was that Nightingale was appointed by the War Office to run the hospital nursing, while Seacole ran a business, giving voluntary aid at her British Hotel, and at the front.

Nightingale is faulted for not “welcoming” Seacole back to Britain—actually she was ill and busy writing a major report on and getting a royal commission going on what went wrong at the hospitals. According to Mark Bostridge’s biography, Nightingale contributed to the fund to support Seacole (but which I have not seen).

The film badly mis-states a claim that Seacole “volunteered her services to the nation” in the Franco-Prussian War. In fact Britain was not a belligerent in that war, and neither side wanted it to send nurses. The supposedly “slanderous” letter that Nightingale wrote was a private letter to her brother-in-law, who was evidently considering that Seacole might be involved in some voluntary capacity. But the situations were entirely different. A “British Hotel” was hardly wanted to supply meals and wine to French and German officers (Seacole spoke neither French nor German), and the armies of both sides were constantly on the move. (In the Crimean War the British Army was stationary for more than a year.)

Nightingale never published a negative statement about Seacole, and the one negative comment from the time that might be reliable—not in her hand but from a reliable source—is quite tame. That occurs in a letter of Selina Bracebridge (who had been out at the war with Nightingale) recounting that the only thing she had heard her say was that Seacole “charged exorbitantly for all she sold” (letter 29 September 1856, Claydon House).

Response to BBC1 “Florence Nightingale” as per media release

by Lynn McDonald, professor, director, Collected Works of Florence Nightingale

May 30, 2008

Smart, tough woman of thirty-six returns from the Crimean War determined to ensure that the appalling death rates (from preventible diseases, she thought) would not happen again. She wrote a 900 page analysis of what went wrong: who did what and failed to do what when, with a vision and plans for better procedures in the future. She next went to work on public health in India (also encouraging the independence movement), reforming (and beginning to dismantle) the terrible workhouses of England (without her bringing in quality nursing into the workhouse infirmaries the National Health Service is unthinkable). Oh yes, and also starting the modern profession of nursing.

If you watch BBC1's new film on Florence Nightingale, however, you would learn none of this. Their sexist putdown has her suffering a “spiritual and emotional breakdown” (how did she manage the 900 page report? and the lobbying that went with it?). The actress that portrays Nightingale is pretty (Nightingale was gaunt and ill when she returned from the war — she nearly died in it). Said actress reports having read a biography of her with real quotations from her writing! Perhaps the writer and director might have done some reading (even more than a biography) to prepare?

Their Nightingale also is called by her first name, as if still a child (men get surnames and titles, typically, but they are evidently more important, and certainly not fainting and weeping).

The dead, alas, have no rights, and no one can sue the BBC for this travesty. How about a film on Mother Teresa, “Terry” for short, hooker and dope dealer in the slums of Calcutta?

I would be happy to debate the director and any writers or researchers responsible for this film.

The real story of what Nightingale accomplished is actually impressive. Admittedly statistics, administrative reform and long, concerted, campaigns (in writing) don’t make for the same visual impact as the tragic, defeated, but still good-looking heroine.