Here is something most people don’t know about me, I am obsessed with Florence Nightingale. Florence Nightingale is probably the most influential figure in the history of nursing, and she’s definitely the most recognized. But this is not what intrigues me about the woman. It’s how different the real woman was from her public image.
Florence’s public image
The events that launched her into the history books and cemented her legacy was her involvement in the Crimean War in 1854. She arrived at Scutari Barracks Hospital to find the place dilapidated, dirty and woefully unprepared for the thousands of wounded soldiers brought there. The mortality rate was astounding, 42% by one estimate. In a matter of months she turned the place around, reducing mortality to 2% and making it a model for military and civilian hospitals alike.
In public perception, she is the Lady with the Lamp, making rounds through the hospital at night. She is a saintly, almost Mother-Theresa-like figure. She is epitome of kindness and compassion. Nurses today still take the Nightingale Pledge and the image of the Lady with Lamp adorns many nursing pins, caps and nursing school logos.
The real Florence Nightingale
The real Florence Nightingale was a wealthy noble woman who detested the “gilded cage” of her social position. A staunch feminist, she saw nursing as means to give women an avenue for independent careers and lives. Her reforms at Scutari had to do with demanding better sanitation, higher standards of care, adequate supplies for the staff and patients alike. She was a capable administrator, but more than anything, she was a bitch. And I say that with pride. A friend described her in a letter, “she scolds sergeants and orderlies all day long, you would be astonished to see how fierce is grown.”
This is the Florence I love. She knows what needs to be done and she’ll see it done, no matter what. If she couldn’t get the men under her to do what needed done, she complained to their superiors. When the superiors didn’t budge, she wrote letters home to influential people she knew. In one letter she said, “It is a current joke here to offer a prize for the discovery of any one willing to take responsibility.” A prize she notes, that remained uncollected. When influential men back home proved unable to help her, as was often the case, she took matters into her own hands and did it herself. She broke into and rummaged the purveyor’s office almost daily to steal supplies, by her own admission even. When they failed to assign enough carpenters to repair the hospital, she went and hired more on her own.
This is the Florence I wish they taught about in nursing school; the fierce advocate for her patients. The tough woman who wouldn’t back down when she knew she was right. The practical problem solver who invented the notion, if you want something done, do it yourself.
And then there is this…
I have recently returned to my obsession with Florence because I had the idea that she would make a great steampunk character. In the course of my research I picked up Edward Cook’s 1913 biography of her life. It’s the kind of book only a history buff would love, but they will love it well.
Here is the most amazing tidbit I’ve picked up so far. The conditions at Scutari when Florence arrived were so bad, the hospital was over ran with vermin. Florence joked that “if they had but unity of purpose” they could easily have carried off the entire hospital. One of the skills she was noted for in the early days there was killing rats. A visitor wrote home to tell the story of how Florence, sitting at a Nun’s sick bed, knock a rat out of the rafters and killed it, without waking the patient.
What is not to love about this? Florence Nightingale, mother of modern nursing, killing rats. Now I have to make her a steampunk character, for that one scene alone.