Florence ‘the mother of modern nursing’ Nightingale, is a familiar figure to many of us who sat through G.C.S.E history. The ‘Lady with the Lamp’ who tended to dying soldiers with grace and kindness. She made hospitals clean their act up (literally) and thus saved many lives. She was a national hero, beloved by many. She’s even got her own museum!
The reality of Florence as a nurse was a little different. As historical gossip Lytton Strachey once said
‘Lemmie tell you the real story about this bisssssh!’
I may be paraphrasing a little. He actually said
‘The Miss Nightingale of fact was not as facile fancy painted her. A Demon possessed her. Now Demons, whatever else they may be, are full of interest. And it so happens that in the real Miss Nightingale there was more that was interesting than in the legendary one; there was also less that was agreeable.’
Nightingale ‘The Early Years’
Flo was born into a wealthy and seriously well connected family. Her parents named her after Florence in Italy, her birthplace. Her sister was Parthenope, again after the place she was birthed. Luckily none of them were born in Cockfoster.
Kid Florence had a fascination with the mechanics of how things and people worked from an early age. She freaked out her sister by stitching her dolls back together into weird Frankenstein monster affairs. Once she even put splints on the family dog.
Flo spent her childhood years swanning around Europe enjoying all the luxuries her status gave her. She was expected to take a husband, look pretty, sew or some such shiz and look after a fancy pants home/husband/2.5 children, as polite society dictated.
Florence did not want to do this.
But things got weird when Flo became convinced she was guided by God who told her she should give nursing a go. Apparently our Lord told her to have a crack at nursing as a way to dedicate her life to helping those less fortunate and other such selfless stuff.
Flo did what God said and told her family that she not only wanted to be a nurse, but also wanted to create more opportunities for educated women like her to take up nursing as an alternative to life serving as a trophy wife.
Family Nightingale did not take this well. Nursing was not a respectable profession for an educated young lady. Plus hospitals were dirty and full of poor people.
But Flo wasn’t out yet. She was shrewd and sneaky; working on nursing in secret. She read every medical commission report available, she collected hospital pamphlets and even snuck off to nursing institutions across Europe.
Her family eventually gave up and let Flo go to Harley Street to work in a private nursing home. Then she got a letter from her pal Sidney Herbert, The Secretary at War. Sidney just happened to know of a war that she would be perfect for:
The Crimean War
Now heres where history gets all romantical with Flo
The story goes that Nightingale took over the Scutari war hospital in 1854 during the Crimean war and improved the frankly disgusting and deadly conditions by introducing bleach and the importance of cleanliness. She was full of sunshine and rainbows and floated between wards like a delicate womanly flower. The death toll of soldiers then fell and she was lauded a hero.
The death toll actually rose with Flo at the helm. More soldiers died from cholera, dysentery, typhoid and other illnesses contracted in these conditions than they did from actual battle wounds.
In fact Flo thought that the disgusting food was responsible for the rise in deaths at the hospital; not hygiene!
In-fact it was then Prime Minister Lord Palmerson who suggested better ventilation and regularly cleaning the sewers would help. After this clean up the death rates fell, and when clean water was introduced they dropped even more dramatically.
But Florence didn’t rest on her laurels. The hospital was in complete chaos, severely underfunded and lacked even basic equipment, like soap! So Flo poured her own money into the war effort and raised vital funds for the hospital back home.
With a direct line to the British Government she could bypass all the red tape and official channels and get equipment and supplies sent to her much faster. So Flo did save lives… just not in the way people think.
Flo also fought against SO MUCH STUPID SEXISM. Those in charge of the war efforts did not like this woman coming in and telling them how to run their hospitals.
One, Sir John Hall, even tried to starve her out of the Crimean War by demanding Florence be given no rations! She outsmarted him by bringing a huge supply of her own food and Sir John was left backing away, tail between his legs.
Life back home or: Nightingale 2: Electric Boogaloo
Once she returned home from the Crimean war Flo opted for a quiet life or sorts. It was both a choice and an inevitability as she had picked up a very vile lurgie that left her bed bound for the final decades of her life.
But bed couldn’t stop her from kicking arse.
Flo spent the rest of her life fighting to administer new procedures (including the cleaning tips she picked up in the Crimean war) in future war hospitals. She was responsible for setting up a Royal Commission that kept an eye on how the army ran their hospitals and what they were doing to look after their troops health.
She revolutionised British Hospitals back home too, fighting to get her procedures instituted and writing reports on good hospital practice. She even opened her own nursing school.
So she changed the way hospitals worked both on the battlefield and at home…but how was the lady with the lamp as a nurse? According to her sister Flo was:
‘a shocking nurse’ because she ‘has little or none of what is called charity or philanthropy’
Ok so maybe Flo wasn’t the most tactful or sympathetic nurse but she was a trailblazer.
Not only that, but she did most of her work whilst lying in bed. I don’t know about you, but the most impressive thing I’ve done in bed is managing to not spill pizza all over the duvet.
This was interesting, where do I find out more: Well Hugh Small has written a great book on Flo Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel (great title for a movie) And has a more in depth bio on her coming out this August. And if you like your history gossipy Lytton Strachey’s Emminent Victorians is a fun and thorough read.