Nathalie Bucknall (1895-1959), From St. Petersburg to Hollywood

Profiles in Nursing

Nathalie Bucknall (1895-1959), From St. Petersburg to Hollywood

Nursing during the Bolshevik Revolution, and beyond

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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In this era of credentials and degrees, we sometimes forget that throughout much of history, nursing was a more informal, transitory occupation. Often, particularly during wartime, the wounded and sick were tended by volunteers who either came from or went on to a wide variety of other occupations.  

One such practitioner was Nathalie Bucknall, whose laudable service as a nurse during the First World War and the Russian Revolution was just the overture to a fascinating and dangerous career that took her from espionage to the silver screen.

Women’s Battalion of Death

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, she was the daughter of State Councilor Ivan de Fedenko, an official in the government of Tsar Nicholas II. Like many upper-class Russian women, the outbreak of the First World War led her to volunteer for the Russian Society of the Red Cross, whose nurses were known as “sisters of mercy.” 

While details of Bucknall’s wartime service are now scarce, historian Laurie Stoff, Ph.D., notes that during World War I:

"Russian sisters of mercy often served very close to the fighting and were subject to conditions very similar to those of combatants. … They experienced extreme cold, constant fatigue, vermin infestations, contagious diseases, the effects of gas attacks, deadly artillery fire and aerial bombardment."

Bucknall performed so valiantly as a nurse that the tsar personally awarded her the St. George Medal for bravery. She also received the Gold Medal of St. Anne. 

In the summer of 1917, she joined Russia’s all-female 2nd Women’s Battalion of Death, although that unit did not see combat before it was disbanded later that year. It was around the time of 1917’s October Revolution that she met and married Lt. Cdr. George Bucknall, a Royal Navy officer attached to the division of Capt. Francis Cromie, the British naval attaché in St. Petersburg and the de facto head of British intelligence in Russia.

On Aug. 31, 1918, Bolshevik troops raided the British embassy and shot Cromie, who died in Nathalie Bucknall’s arms. The Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, arrested all the survivors of the raid and imprisoned them in St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress.

Daring Espionage

This marked the beginning of a dramatic new chapter in Bucknall’s life. Two days after her arrest, the Cheka released her, though not the other embassy captives. As Bucknall herself explained in a 1937 radio interview, “They thought by letting me go, they could follow me, find out where we kept our funds and intercept any communications that might come from England.”

However, the Cheka had underestimated Bucknall’s resourcefulness. She eluded her Chekist “tail” and made her way to the German embassy. Although Germany and Great Britain were still at war in September 1918, she persuaded the chargé d’affaires to allow her to send a message to the British government, explaining what had happened to the embassy staff. “He may have been an enemy, but he also was a gentleman,” Bucknall recalled.

She then began an even more perilous game: adopting a series of disguises — in her own words, “sometimes as a peasant, sometimes as a servant girl or a nurse” — to evade the Cheka and sneak in and out of the Peter and Paul Fortress.  Bucknall bribed a guard and traded one of the cooks a pair of stylish leather boots to let her send messages to the British prisoners, at one point concealing a note in a can of French sardines.

Weeks later, the British government was able to negotiate the release of the other captives, eventually allowing Bucknall and her husband to escape to England with vital information on the fate of Cromie and his stash of secret documents. 

Amazingly, Bucknall returned to Russia in 1919 when her husband was reassigned as naval attaché to the British military mission in the Caucasus, supporting the White Russian (pro-tsar) forces of Gen. Anton Denikin.

Bucknall became head of a military hospital, treating British and White Russian soldiers while also acting as a conduit for secret messages to her husband. In 1920, the Red Army triumphed over the White Russian forces and the British withdrew. However, King George V recognized Bucknall’s heroism by appointing her to the Order of the British Empire for “special services.” She was one of only a handful of women so honored.

Making it in Hollywood

The Bucknalls later moved to the United States, settling in Los Angeles in 1926. A year later, Bucknall took a job as a script reader for MGM. Her prodigious memory, exceptional linguistic skills and command of eclectic facts made a strong impression on the studio heads, who eventually established a new research department for Bucknall to lead. In those days, MGM was Hollywood’s most prestigious studio, boasting “more stars than there are in heaven.”

The job of Bucknall’s department was to research facts and background details, putting the fine polish on glossy epics like MGM’s 1935 adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo.  For instance, Bucknall was the one to point out details like the fact that in Anna Karenina, a nurse’s dress “would be covered by a heavy shawl and she would wear a heavy overcoat, so one would not see the national costume.”

Although her department mostly researched stories written by others, Bucknall received story credit in several films, including the 1939 B picture Four Girls in White, about four student nurses dealing with life while interning at a major hospital.    

New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent called Four Girls in White “a lively little production,” but remarked that “it certainly makes the girls in white much more irresistibly fetching, en masse, than this reporter has ever found them to be.” The film was successful enough to be spoofed a few months later on an episode of NBC radio’s “The Jell-O Program” starring Jack Benny.

Safe and Happy Homes

Bucknall eventually left the movies and went to work for the City of Los Angeles Health Department as a safety services coordinator. Her new job was to promote the department’s safety and disease prevention efforts, creating materials like tips on hot weather hazards and safety education for babysitters. In a 1951 article for the American Journal of Public Health, Bucknall spelled out — with the same meticulous attention to detail that had once served her in the MGM research department — her 10 best practices for health and safety education.

“Visual aids should be used freely, preferably of the cartoon and comic strip type,” she advised. She also addressed “elusive psychological factors” that hamper health education, such as the thought that “it cannot happen to me or in my home” and the desire to conceal problems that might suggest poor home maintenance or slovenly personal habits. “A safe and happy home is the bulwark of our democracy,” she concluded.

Bucknall died in 1959. She was only 63, but left a rich legacy in nursing and beyond.

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN,  is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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