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A modest appreciation of Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale | WikiCommons + Scrubs

We’ve all heard the stories of ol’ Floss The Boss in the Crimean War. Most of us have read Notes on Nursing, most of us have taken the Nightingale Pledge and we all know Florence was the founder of modern nursing education.

But who among us knows that she spent the last 50-odd years of her life mostly confined to bed? While she was sick with what was probably brucellosis and a case of spondylitis, she was reforming hospital design and further contributing to nursing education. All of that from a heavily decorated Victorian bedroom scattered (I’m sure) with innumerable side tables and knickknacks.

It’s not like she wasn’t physically strong, at least as a younger woman. Nursing is no picnic now, and nursing in war zones and poorhouses in the 1850s and 1860s demanded the physical and mental strength that the soldiers of the time had—plus, nurses did it all in heavy, confining clothing. So why did she spend a half century in her bedroom, intermittently ill, while at the same time managing to change the course of nursing both as a career and as a science?

Flo was born into an upper-middle-class family in 1820. The peak of her career came during those years when social mores dictated that women’s highest calling was the home and family.

Women who worked outside the home, unless it was in distributing thin soup and moralistic pamphlets to the Deserving Poor, simply didn’t exist in her time, class and place. Further, she never married—which means that the expectation would’ve been that she’d spend time taking care of other members of her family until the day she either died or retired to a rocking chair in the corner.

What’s a rich, ambitious woman to do when faced with the prospects of: a) being a nurse for her older family members (or, at best, a genteel companion); b) getting married and devoting herself to the care of a husband, household and family; or c) being ostracized for her ambition, thus throwing up obstacles to what she really wants to accomplish?

Florence took to her bed. From there, she was allowed almost unheard-of freedom in terms of intellectual and political influence. She published, raised funds, refined nursing theories she’d first thought of in the Crimean and generally proceeded to do nursing like a boss for 53 years. She took the Victorian notions of women’s delicacy and tendency toward illness—remember, this was the heyday of the wandering uterus—and turned them on their heads, ensuring that people left her alone and let her work.

Let’s raise a glass to Florence Nightingale this week, and not just because she moved our profession into the modern day. Let’s toast her as an example of what can be done if you use the rules to your advantage by sticking to the letter, if not perhaps the spirit, of the law. Personally, I plan to raise my glass from the cushy comfort of my own couch.

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Agatha Lellis

Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night.
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