On the 200th anniversary of her birth, the wisdom of Florence Nightingale
IN a bittersweet irony, an international conference to honour the life of Florence Nightingale was due to be held at London’s ExCel Centre this October, complete with an exhibition of a 19thcentury field hospital showing how the Lady with the Lamp’s dedication saved so many lives.
Now the gathering of 4,000 people will only go ahead if Covid-19 is under control and the venue is no longer needed as an emergency hospital. But it is fitting that the hospital, now mothballed while the country slowly eases out of lockdown, is named The Nightingale after the country’s greatest nurse.
And today, on the 200th anniversary of her birth, celebrated around the world as International Nurses Day, we can all draw inspiration from the woman herself as hundreds of her letters are made available online for the first time.
Florence Nightingale’s handwritten messages and diary entries, from The Nightingale Museum, The Royal College of Nursing, the Wellcome Trust and Boston University shine a new light on her steely character and boundless compassion as well as the struggles she endured, the personal sacrifices she made and risks she took with her own life to bring comfort to the sick.
A tireless campaigner for better hygiene and decent facilities for her patients, she often wrote to leading Army figures, newspapers and senior politicians, seeking change and funding.
BUT her most uplifting sentiments were saved for young nurses embarking on the new career of nursing which, until she started to change things, had been a job often filled by uneducated women who were not qualified for anything else.
In a New Year’s Day message written in 1878, she tries to fill her recruits with confidence, while encouraging them to do better.
“May our New Year be merry, happy and glorious,” she writes. “Dear comrades let this be really a New Year, a year of deliverance from all our faults and mistakes.
“Let this be a year of pulling our patients through – a year of work such as angels might enjoy, a year of blessings for the sick.
“Dear probationer, this, as I hope you know, you are always present in my thoughts. And plenty of care papers this year, please, plenty of proofs that you are interested in your patients.
“And, oh remember, please that each one of those patients is a temple of God.”
Nightingale was always concerned about the welfare of the women who joined her crusade, preferring recruits to be at least in their mid-twenties.
In 1887 she responded to someone who wanted her to take on a trainee nurse aged 18. She agrees to interview the young woman but tells the correspondent she is concerned that the candidate is “too young physically and morally”.
Nightingale adds: “There are sacred secrets belonging to the sick which (she) could not and ought not be able to understand.And there are secrets, the very reverse of sacred secrets, the secrets of vice.
“We even prefer not admitting gentlewomen earlier than 26 or 27 for two reasons; one that gentlewomen are young in knowingness. Pray that I will not cry down Hospital life. To me it is the most sacred, the holiest of all.What is holiness for but to spend it for those who are unholy. And the lovely things one sees among the patients, the return of good feeling among those who for years have never heard a good word.” But her struggles with juggling work and family responsibilities will strike a chord with many working women today.
In an 1872 letter to a friend she writes: “My father and mother are well but they age very much.They are unfit to be left. “I spent two-thirds of last year with them, to the destruction of my work, and 22 hours out of every 24 in the room next (to) my mother’s and still I felt I could not do enough for them.” Named for the Italian city of her birth, Florence and her older sister Parthe had a charmed upbringing, splitting time between their family’s huge estate at Lea Hurst, Derbyshire, and at Embly, Hampshire. Florence was a gifted scholar who learned French, Italian and
CAMPAIGNER: Florence wrote many letters to plead her case for care
German languages and had an aptitude for maths.
For years a handsome young poet, Richard Monckton Milnes, had wooed her but her commitment to the sick came before romance.
In a diary entry, Florence explained her decision: “I have a moral and active nature which requires satisfaction and that I would not find in his life.
“I could not satisfy this nature by spending a life with him in making society and arranging domestic things.”
Her parents William and Fanny were furious and refused to support her financially for a while. So in 1850 she fled Britain to enrol at the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses in Kaiserwerth, Germany.
While there she wrote her definition of being a “nurser”. “Nursing is an art,” she says. “And if it is to be made an art, it requires as exclusive a devotion, as hard a preparation, as any painter’s or sculptor’s work.”
After three months she returned to London to work in a hospital in Harley