Pioneer magazine

The Lady with the Lamp

Florence Nightingale was born in 1820 in Florence,  ltaly, from where she got her name, but she grew up on her father’s estates in Derbyshire and Hampshire. From a wealthy Victorian background, when, at 23, she told her family that she wanted to be a nurse they were vigorously against the idea, nursing being then associated with working-class women. Her father: an anti—slavery campaigner; had taught her Greek, Latin, French, German and Italian, as well as philosophy and maths. In I851 he finally agreed to her becoming a nurse. She studied nursing at the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses in Kaiserwerth-am-Rhein in Germany.

Cramped by Victorian snobbery,  she began breaking out to life by visiting hospitals in 1844, not as a peddler of philanthropy, but as one deeply interested in nursing methods. Five years later she went to Egypt via Paris, where she met some St Vincent de Paul Sisters. Fascinated by their methods, she later visited then hospital in Alexandria. This made her determined to end the chaotic state of nursing in England. She returned in I853 and founded the Nightingale Training School in St Thomas’s Hospital for "Invalid Gentlewomen" in Harley Street, London. But when the committee that ran passed a resolution excluding Catholics, she tendered her resignation and the decision was reversed at once.

She devoted the rest of her life to the development of nursing as a profession. ln I853 she was made lady superintendent of a hospital for invalid women in Harley Street, London. A year later the Crimean War began. On one side was Russia, which had invaded Turkey, while Britain and France were on the other. British soldiers who had been sent to Turkey, were soon victims of cholera and malaria. After The London Times newspaper published reports of great numbers of them dying from cholera, there was a widespread outcry, so the Government had to act.

Florence, who was a friend of the War Secretary,  Sidney Herbert, was sent with 38 women volunteer nurses to an army hospital at Scutari in Turkey. ln 1854 accounts reached England of the appalling conditions of the wounded soldiers in the Crimean War. A Royal Commission was set up to enquire into it. The Secretary of War, Sidney Herbert, one of her friends, chose her as the ideal person to superintend matters in the Crimea. With a staff of 38 nurses, and Government support, she arrived in Scutari in the Crimea on 4 November in time to see the wounded of the Balaclava blunder being brought in.

The conditions they found there were appalling: soldiers still in dirty uniforms, were unwashed, without blankets and were badly fed. There were hardly any medicines. Under such conditions, it was not surprising that probably six times as many died of cholera, typhus and dysentery than from battle wounds. Florence got little assistance and had to seek the help of her friends in The Times newspaper to expose how badly the British army treated its own injured soldiers. She never claimed to have reduced the death rate, but when she came back home and collected evidence for the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army she was convinced of the utmost importance of proper sanitation and this influenced the rest of her career.

The public awareness of her work in the War led to the founding of the Nightingale Fund for training nurses, which enabled her to establish the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, in 1860. The Notes on Nursing, which she published, were the basis of the School’s curriculum. From now on she devoted herself entirely to developing nursing as a profession.

As her recent biographer, Mark Bostridge indicates, trained nurses were introduced in British and Irish workhouses around the 1860s. Before this sick people were cared for by the able-bodied patients.

Very soon Nightingale nurses were to be found among the professional nurses, not only at home, but also in the U.S., Canada and Australia. The achievements of Florence Nightingale are all the more impressive when one considers the social restraints on women in Victorian Britain.

Her career in the Crimea was an epic of heroic patience and compassion. She often worked for 20 hours without a break, supervising every detail of the insanitary and evil-smelling barrack hospital. She visited the wards alone every night, lamp in hand, to comfort the men. The scene has been told by Longfellow in his poem “Santa Filomena":

A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering gloom,
And flit from room to room

On England’s annals through the long
Hereafter of her speech and song
That lights its rays shall cast
From portals of the past

A Lady with a Lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land,
A noble type of good
Heroic womanhood.

She carried out her duties with such efficiency that the death-rate in the army hospital fell by 40% in four months. But its medical staff was resentful and uncooperative. Despite the great relief she brought the soldiers, officials tried to hamper her with red tape.

Methodical mercy was the dynamic force that sustained her. And as it needed great strength of character to bring her mission in the Crimea to a successful end, it also needed these virtues to sustain her in her own sufferings when she caught the Crimean fever and lay on the brink of death in a hospital at Balaclava.
The fever took its toll and when she returned to England she was confined to her sick-room for her last 30 years. Although now practically a prisoner; she continued to display her passion for method. The fiery reformer became a recluse. We have the spectacle of this frail invalid exercising, through a small band of workers and sick-room interviews with select people, a greater influence on the Royal Commission of Ministers than any person of unofficial standing. To nursing, hospitals, barracks, sanitation — she gave her great gifts of organization. As a result of reforms, the fall in the death-rate was as great as that she had brought about in the hospitals of Scutari. In Indian hospitals the fall in death rates was enormous and was also due to her.

The typical Victorian lady would have propped herself up in lace and lavender and resigned herself to self—pity and helplessness. But Florence was no idle lady. She opposed the whole Victorian code of conduct, which condemned women to adopt a pose of uselessness and waste all their talents for service and compassion to the supposed desire for mastery over men. In breaking that code, Florence Nightingale lifted a load of suffering from many people.

Official acknowledgement of her courage and genius for administration came with the Order of Merit in 1907. When she died three years later; aged 90, her legend unfortunately lived on after her; a legend which falsifies her real greatness. Public opinion clamoured for a dove- like figure of Nightingale "the Nurse", so the valiant Nightingale was replaced by a sentimental plaster-cast "Lady with the Lamp", for genteel admiration. Our age has stripped the tinsel from certain eminent Victorians. The great figure of Florence Nightingale benefits from this. And our age, which prides itself on method and precision, will reach a more lasting appreciation of her than that into which she was born.

Paul Hurley, SVD