florence nightingale -- 3/17/22

Today's encore selection -- from "Florence Nightingale: Icon and Iconoclast" R.E. Foster. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was a British citizen, who, depressed and uneasy with the opulent circumstances of her upbringing, found her life's calling in elevating the profession of nursing worldwide. Though initially unwelcome, she came to prominence during the Crimean War and was dubbed "The Lady with the Lamp" after her habit of making rounds at night to tend injured soldiers. Nightingale laid the foundation stone of professional nursing with the principles summarized in the book Notes on Nursing:

"Florence Nightingale was born in the Italian city, which named her in 1820. Her early life is nowadays popularly presumed to have been comfortably unexceptional. In fact, her father was a well-off Sheffield banker's son who inherited a large fortune from a Derbyshire uncle. That he could afford to buy a second country estate, of 4,000 acres, Embley Park in Hampshire for £125,000 in 1825 proclaimed enormous wealth. ... The company there certainly sparkled, for the house guests at Embley included the political heavyweight Lord Palmerston, the future seventh Earl of Shaftsbury, who introduced Florence to the 'delights' of government statistics, the mathematician Charles Babbage, and Charles Darwin. ...

Florence Nightingale, c. 1860

"Florence would later use her family's wealth and connections to good advantage. But inwardly she was anything but at ease. Predisposed to ill-health and depression, increasingly uneasy with the opulence around her, and above all frustrated that her talents were being honed for no practical purpose, her teens and twenties were often desperately unhappy. ... [Then] Britain and France declared war on Russia in March 1854.

"On September 20, 1854, Allied forces gained victory over the Russians at the Battle of the River Alma. Like many, however, Nightingale was moved less by stories of soldierly heroism, than by reports of the privations suffered by the wounded. In his report of October 13 to The Times, William Howard Russell focused specifically on hospital conditions 'worthy only of the savages of Dahomey.' Army nursing was, as it always had been, carried out by a mixture of male army pensioners and troops who were convalescing. The superior French medical provision, by contrast, included Sisters of Charity. 'These devoted women', Russell informed the British public, 'are excellent nurses' ... The government was stung into action and [family friend] Sidney Herbert was Secretary at War. On October 21, he proposed that she head a nursing party at government expense. There was he added, 'but one person in England that I know of who would be capable of organizing such a scheme.' Serene whilst those around her flustered, Nightingale left London on October 21, as Superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment in the English General Military Hospitals in Turkey. With her went 38 volunteers.

"Nightingale's party entered the largest British base hospital in the war, the Barrack Hospital at Scutari in Turkey, on November 4. It was immediately clear that they were unwelcome with many in the army and medical hierarchy. Nightingale responded by setting her charges to work on such useful menial tasks as making bandages and scrubbing floors. Yet four days later overwhelmed by the influx of casualties from the Battle of Inkerman, doctors summoned their assistance.

"Over the next weeks, Nightingale's legend was born. A 15-20 hour working day was not untypical for her. She was literally 'hands on', whether killing rats or assisting with amputations. Soon her nurses were tending over 2,000 patients in beds 18 inches apart. John Macdonald of The Times immortalized her as 'a ministering angel' ... 'in these hospitals and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor every poor fellow's face softens with gratitude at the sight of her'. In the midst of a military campaign whose progress was equivocal her success could be reported unambiguously."


R.E. Foster


"Florence Nightingale: Icon and Iconoclast"


History Today


No. 66


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