The 5 Most Memorable Nurses on Film
Ever since Florence Nightingale became famous as a lamp-bearing beacon of hope, nurses have been a fixture of pop culture. If you’re a nurse or thinking of becoming one, you have plenty of opportunities to see your profession on the big or small screen. Nurses have been figures of romance, horror, heroism, and more in films and on television, and portrayed in ways ranging from semi-accurate to the wholly fantastic. These are five of the most memorable (but not necessarily heroic or positive) nurses from movies and TV.
1. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” 1975)
Let’s get this one out of the way first. As unpleasant as she is, if you’re talking about nurses on film, you have to talk about Nurse Ratched. She’s probably the most compelling nurse ever put on celluloid, though not because she’s at all good at providing healthcare to her patients.
Louise Fletcher is terrifying in the role. She strikes fear into the hearts of her patients and anyone watching the film. Her performance even earned Fletcher an Oscar and Nurse Ratched the number five spot on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains.
Nurse Ratched is a good example of what not to do. Don’t terrify your patients, don’t talk down to them, and don’t foster an environment of paranoia and authoritarianism in your workplace. Nurses (and really all healthcare providers) need to exercise professionalism, interpersonal skills, and empathy on the job. It’s not always easy, but it’s necessary. If you think “what wouldn’t Nurse Ratched do?” that’s probably a good starting place.
Related resource: Medical TV: Who Did Their Research?
2. Madam Pomfrey (Gemma Jones, “Harry Potter” franchise, 2001–2011)
Wizards and witches in the Harry Potter universe have applied magic to transportation (with portkeys and floo powder), sports (with Quidditch), and healthcare. Madam Pomfrey is the strict, but caring, nurse at Hogwarts, who memorably provided Harry with Skele-Gro in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” after Professor Lockhart accidentally removed Harry’s arm bones. Many healthcare workers watching that scene probably wished treatments like that were so easy.
Madam Pomfrey raises so many questions. We see her using magic, so she’s obviously a witch, but does she know who Florence Nightingale is? Has she read the same books as we have, like “Notes on Nursing”? Did she pass the NCLEX? Do witch nurses even have things like professional certifications or best practices? Would she know what to do if she clocked in for a shift?
So many questions. It’s probably best not to think about it and just enjoy the fantasy.
Related resource: 6 Important Nurses From History
3. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit, “M*A*S*H,” 1972–1983)
Margaret Houlihan originally appeared in the 1970 Robert Altman film “M*A*S*H” where she was played by Sally Kellerman. But it was Loretta Swit’s small-screen version of the character that became a cultural icon.
Initially, the TV version of Houlihan cleaved to Kellerman’s portrayal in the film. She was stern, by-the-book, and often a strict foil for the other more relaxed characters. As the show progressed, though, Swit brought more complexity to the character. Viewers learned how stressed and anxious she was dealing with the Korean War and her duties as a head nurse, and that she consistently sent much of her salary home to support her mother.
A lot of us have probably worked with a Major Houlihan, the strict supervisor who’s just a little too by-the-book. Many of us have probably also been her in our more brittle moments, demanding maybe just a little too much from our colleagues. But Swit’s character reminds us that there’s always a core of humanity in even the most hard-nosed co-worker.
Related resource: Florence Nightingale Teachings We Take to Heart
4. Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes, “A Farewell to Arms,” 1932)
The 1932 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical novel melds war movies with tragic romance. Helen Hayes plays Catherine Barkley, an English nurse who falls in love with an American ambulance driver (and Hemingway stand-in) played by Gary Cooper. However, Cooper’s character is drawn away from Barkley’s arms toward the chaos of WWI’s Italian front. Cooper eventually returns, but things go about as well for a movie set in one of the most terrifying conflicts in human history.
Catherine definitely draws upon (and is maybe even the source of) romantic notions about nurses. Like Nurse Ratched, she embodies persistent stereotypes about nurses, albeit positive ones. However, it’s easy to forget that when watching Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper breathlessly gaze at each other in the 1932 film. A few other versions of “A Farewell to Arms” have popped up over the years, but this one is the best.
Related resource: A History Lesson in Nursing Uniforms
5. Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett, “Star Trek” TV series and movies, 1966–1986)
Doctor McCoy might be the healthcare provider that everyone remembers from Star Trek, but he wasn’t alone. The USS Enterprise had a fully-staffed sick bay, and that included Nurse Christine Chapel. During her time in the original series and subsequent movies, Chapel helped treat mysterious diseases and conditions from outer space and provided healthcare to humans, aliens, and androids.
“Star Trek” is a famously utopian vision of the future, with humans and various aliens cooperating to explore the galaxy. The show and movies might not have gotten all their predictions right, but here it hit the mark: Nurses are an integral part of society, now and in the future.