The Mysterious Miss Nightingale

Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel

by Hugh Small
St. Martin's, 221 pp., $35.00

Florence Nightingale: Mystic, Visionary, Healer

by Barbara Dossey
Springhouse, 440 pp., $54.95


From a public relations point of view, the Crimean War did not go well for Great Britain. The recent Limited Services Act permitted ordinary middle-class men to spend short periods on military duty, and gentlemen could now see for themselves the horrors of war. Moreover, photographers and reporters for the first time sent firsthand dispatches from the front. Members of the British public, with the new political power they had gained from the expanded franchise under the Reform Bill of 1832, read with dismay in the daily papers as “the best army that ever left these shores” succumbed to cannon fire, starvation, and disease, in a war fought in a faraway country, for obscure reasons.

In October 1854, a story in the Times of London reported that the British army was suffering terribly, not at the hands of the Russians, but from the indifference, incompetence, and bloody-mindedness of its own commanders, suppliers, and medical authorities. Every day, sick and wounded soldiers were shipped across the Black Sea from the Crimean front to the Scutari base hospital on a cliff overlooking the Bosphorus, opposite the imperial center of Constantinople. The doctors and orderlies there were overwhelmed. A few days after the appearance of the Times article, Secretary at War Sidney Herbert sent a contingent of thirty-nine nurses to Scutari, led by Florence Nightingale, a well-born woman of thirty-four. These women were also written up in the Times. Sending Florence Nightingale and her nurses was partly a propaganda move, a way for the War Office to be seen to be doing something. But in later life, Nightingale would achieve far more than anyone at the time could have expected.

Florence Nightingale is most famous as the founder of the modern nursing profession, but her work after the war as a public health reformer was at least as important, if not more so. Historians are gradually replacing the image of the slender young woman gliding among the hospital beds at Scutari, bringing care to dying men, with that of a plump, serious woman who, after she returned from the Crimea, spent years immersed in government blue books and hospital statistics. Less may be known about this later career, because her work as a reformer was mainly administrative and political. She wrote reports and letters, advised Parliament, the War Office, and the Colonial Office, and held meetings with politicians and civil servants, activities that are much harder to dramatize than nursing the wounded.

Recently there has been a revival in Florence Nightingale studies. Two new biographies have appeared in the past three years, along with an annotated collection of Nightingale’s correspondence with Mother Superior Mary Clare Moore, with whom she worked in the Crimea.1 Further biographies are underway, and Dr. Lynn McDonald of the University of Guelph, Canada, has been gathering all of Nightingale’s writings, including correspondence, from archives around the world. Her sixteen-volume abridged collection of Nightingale’s work will be published during the next five years. Since some of this material…

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