A Nurse Who Made History–Florence Nightingale

During these painful days of the coronavirus pandemic, we are more aware than ever of the importance of our healthcare workers. Doctors, nurses, and their assistants are the people we rely on for help with illnesses. But they do more than just help us as individuals. They also build knowledge and systems that improve the quality of healthcare for all of us. Often, they don’t get credit for these achievements. Nurses especially are apt to be remembered only for their gentle kindness, but not their other valuable work. Florence Nightingale is a good example of a woman who is remembered for all the wrong reasons.  

The Legendary Florence Nightingale

Born into an old-fashioned English family in 1820, Nightingale had to fight hard to get the education she wanted and to become a nurse. Her big chance to shine came when England blundered into the Crimean War in 1854. The British had not fought a war in decades and were confident they could defeat Russia which was threatening to block their access to India. It wasn’t until British troops reached the Crimea that their vulnerability to the climate and poor sanitary conditions was demonstrated. Before the battles had even started, 20 percent of the troops had come down with diarrhea, cholera, or dysentery. Hospital facilities were poor or non-existent.

At last Florence Nightingale had an arena in which her talents shone, although it was a difficult struggle to convince the authorities that she could help. Finally she was able to gather together a group of women who had some experience as nurses. They included lay nurses and both Roman Catholic and Anglican nuns. Florence left for the Crimea in October 1854 and established her headquarters in the hospital at Scutari. It was there that she proved her abilities as an executive, managing the delicate relationships between the army and the nurses, establishing methods of providing food and supplies for the hospital, and introducing sanitary measures that saved lives.

While she was in the Crimea, Florence’s fame as the “lady with the lamp” grew even though she did less and less nursing. She was essentially a manager and purveyor of supplies, but the public insisted upon viewing her as a gentle nurse who soothed poor, sick soldiers. The army officers and politicians who interacted with her were more realistic in describing her as a tough executive who fought to build a viable organization of hospitals.

When Florence returned to England in the summer of 1856, she had no intention of stepping back. The more she learned about health conditions among the troops, the more determined she became to change the situation. She pushed hard to get an official commission appointed and although she was not allowed to serve on the commission herself, it was her persistence that eventually brought it about. She labored relentlessly to write a report, which she eventually published as Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Founded Chiefly on the Experience of the Late War. Here her interest in statistics served her well. Realizing that people could visualize pictures better than rows of figures, she invented what she called her “coxcombs” to present the most important facts.

Example of Nightingale’s Coxcomb

Florence Nightingale lived to be ninety years old and most of those years were devoted to improving public health. Like so many other women, her strengths have often been misunderstood. She is remembered as the sweet nurse tending soldiers, but her real achievement was far too “unwomanly” to be acknowledged while she was alive. It’s a shame that she is often misrepresented even now. There are several good biographies; one that I strongly recommend is Mark Bostridge’s recent Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon. After reading it, you’ll never feel the same about Victorian women and their lives.

Our Unknown Neighbors to the South

As hurricane Irma inches its way to Florida, it’s hard to stop looking at TV pictures of the trail of broken buildings, flooded landscapes and unhappy, bewildered people it has left Caribbean Islandsbehind. For several long days now the storm has been punishing the small island that dot the Atlantic between Florida and South America, islands that most Americans know almost nothing about. Still suffering the effects of centuries of colonial rule by European governments, most of those islands will find it much harder to rebuild homes and lives after the hurricane has passed than Florida and other Southern states will.

In honor of the inhabitants of some of those Caribbean Islands, I am repeating a blog post that I wrote several years ago in honor of one of the heroines of the Islands.

Mary SeacoleMary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 in the prosperous and attractive city of Kingston, the base of British operations in the West Indies. White British upper-class people controlled the island, while most Jamaicans of African descent were slaves. Mary’s mother was apparently of mixed-blood and was free, as were many children whose fathers were white. Mary herself writes in her autobiography “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family;”

Mary’s mother was a boarding house keeper and a healer. That may seem an odd combination to us today, but it made sense because British officers and officials, who often found it difficult to cope with Jamaica’s climate and tropical diseases, could use both services. Mary learned traditional healing methods, using plants and other common substances. While she was a teenager, Mary spent a year in London, which she apparently enjoyed despite the presence of “street-boys to poke fun at me and my companion’s complexion.” Travel was her favorite occupation and she managed to return to London as a merchant selling West Indian preserves and pickles. For most of the rest of her life, Mary Seacole combined business and healing as her twin sources of income.

After an adventurous few years in Jamaica and Panama and a short marriage to a rather frail man who died while still young, Mary was established as a prosperous “doctoress” and merchant. She visited the United States, but found the prejudice against people of color too extreme for her. She preferred England where she was accepted more neutrally, even if sometimes slighted and patronized, but for the most part she remained in the West Indies and Central America where her color was not an issue.

When the Crimean War started in 1854, Mary determined that she would go to the war zone to help the troops. She heard of Florence Nightingale’s plan to take a group of nurses there and applied to be one of them, but was not accepted. Never one to give up a good idea, she raised enough money herself to pay for the expenses of the trip and set out. She found facilities in the camps and hospitals deplorable, just as Florence

Florence Nightingale
Nurse during Crimean War

Nightingale did. Florence worked with the Army and the government using the rules and regulations to get her way. It was a long, difficult road, but one that Florence, well-disciplined and familiar with upper-class life, was prepared to take. Mary chose a different route. Scornful of protocol, she opened a facility called the British Hotel where she offered food as well as giving medical treatment to soldiers. Because she had no access to government money or very much in the way of charitable giving, she charged for services, but she devoted everything she could to serving the troops.

Florence Nightingale was rather scornful of Mary Seacole and probably distressed by her flamboyant dress and habits. Nonetheless Mary became a heroine to the troops and a friend of many people in high places, including relatives of Queen Victoria. When the war was over she returned to England to high praise and much publicity. She received a commendation from the queen and when she published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, it sold well. The book is still worth reading and is available in several editions, including a free ebook version, on Amazon.com. There is also a fascinating biography Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea by Jane Robinson. It is not easy to find in the U.S., but well worth searching for. And perhaps when we send aid to help the victims of natural disasters, we should remember our neighbors to the South whose small islands and brave people are so often forgotten.