Florence Nightingale was born this day, 12 May 1820, the daughter of privilege and wealth, coddled and sheltered by her parents, but given an education worthy of a scholar; destined, one suspects, for a “happy alliance” (to use the language of the day), marriage and children; yet she resolutely rejected the pleas and entreaties of her distraught mother and anxious father, and set off for a life of adventure and service.
What are we to make of her, this woman, this paradigm and paragon of nursing?
To begin with, we should not make her a saint of cold alabaster, rigid and unyielding, for she was most assuredly human, an enigma, full of contradiction and conflict. She was the Lady of the Lamp, fulfilling the cultural fantasies of the Victorian age, the example of supposed womanly virtues of selfless service, tenderness and charity, yet she bullied bureaucrats, and indeed her own nurses mercilessly. She served all without distinction of class or creed or religion, remarkable in the time, yet perhaps could not escape the era’s pervasive racism: her treatment of Mary Seacole, another pioneering nurse, was deplorable by all accounts. She counselled her nurses to be devoted and obedient, especially to physicians, but as Lytton Strachey (correctly, for once) observed in his famous biography,
[i]t was not by gentle sweetness and womanly self-abnegation that she had brought order out of chaos in the Scutari Hospitals, that, from her own resources, she had clothed the British Army, that she had spread her dominion over the serried and reluctant powers of the official world; it was by strict method, by stern discipline, by rigid attention to detail, by ceaseless labour, by the fixed determination of an indomitable will. Beneath her cool and calm demeanour lurked fierce and passionate fires.
And yet, in the view of most modern nurses, we are left with an image wholly misrepresentative of Nightingale’s achievement, one of simpering submission, of nurse-as-handmaiden. Far cry from “fierce and passionate”! Perhaps it is time to throw out this old and tired cardboard characterization and embrace Nightingale as she was: a woman and a nurse — and not only a nurse, for she was an accomplished statistician, theologian and writer as well — furiously assertive, unceasing in her advocacy and tireless in the promotion of health. For nurses looking for role models, here’s one. Like modern nurses, Nightingale advised and lobbied — hard! — politicians and bureaucrats, brought evidence in reams to buttress her arguments, and frankly, she drew on her capital, her public image as the Lady with the Lamp, to manipulate and win public support and sympathy.
Nightingale may have been the most beloved, the most celebrated person of the Nineteenth Century, more famed then the woman who gave her name to the age in which Nightingale lived. We read of her image adorning grocery bags and her portrait giving benediction to middle-class households. But Victoria merely ruled an empire, which soon after crumbled to dust and ashes, like all empires will; in contrast, Nightingale showed the way and created the profession which gave aid, brought comfort and restored health to countless millions. It is not an exaggeration to state Nightingale laid the foundations of modern health care, and that without her professional descendents, caring for the sick in the present day would be as haphazard as the military hospital at Scutari.
But at the end, we are left with the Lady with the Lamp, a picture some nurses would argue, represents an outdated and unrealistic picture of nurses, one that is submissive and oppressed.
Yet a lamp is not an inapt metaphor. Lamps illuminate and enlighten. they search out hidden corners and bring them into sharp relief; they reveal the reality of a situation, banishing what is obscure. Lamps act as beacons. They are symbols of hope. And they can contain fierce passionate fires: all in all, not an inappropriate way to represent nurses and nursing. If there is any legacy of Nightingale’s for nurses to embrace, it ought to be this one. The Nightingale who forged a revolution in health care would approve.