Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Florence Nightingale

( Originally Published 1907 )

LYING before me is a manuscript. It is written on large sheets of stout paper which have turned yellow with the years. The writing, that of a woman, is bold and free, as of one accustomed to the pen; but the fashion of the letters belongs to a long-past time. It is an obituary notice of Florence Nightingale, written for the Daily News fifty-one years ago, when the most famous of Englishwomen was at the point of death. The faded manuscript has lain in its envelope for half a century unused. The busy pen that wrote it fell for ever from the hand of the writer more than thirty years ago, for that writer was Harriet Martineau. The subject of the memoir still lives, the most honoured and loved of all the subjects of the Sovereign.

There are tears in that old manuscript, the generous, almost passionate, tears of a great soul stricken by a sore bereavement. Miss Martineau was writing within three years of the Crimean war, when the name of Florence Nightingale still throbbed with memories vivid as last night's dream, and when her heroism had the dew of the dawn upon it. To-day that name is like a melody of a far-off time—a melody we heard in the remotest days of childhood. Florence Nightingale !

It comes o'er the ear like the sweet South, Stealing and giving odour.

It has perfumed the years with the fragrance of gracious deeds. I have sometimes idly speculated on the strange fortuity of names, on the perfect echo of the name to the deed Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson! Why is it that the world's singers come heralded with these significant names? Why is it that the infinite families of the Smiths and the Robinsons and the Joneses never sing? And Oliver Cromwell and John Churchill and Horatio Nelson! Why, there is the roar of guns and the thunder of great deeds in the very accents of their names. And so with the heroines of history, the Grace Darlings and the Florence Nightingales. One almost sees in the latter case events carefully avoiding the common-place and shaping a lustrous name for the wearer. For her mother was named Smith, the daughter of that William Smith, the famous philanthropist, and member for Norwich, who fought the battle of the Dissenters in Parliament, and was one of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement. And her father was named Shore, and only assumed the name of Nightingale with the estates that made him a wealthy man. " A rose by any other name," no doubt. But the world is grateful for the happy accident that gave it " Florence Nightingale."

It is a name full of a delicate reminiscence, like the smell of lavender in a drawer, calling up memories of those from whose lips we first heard the story of " The Lady with the Lamp." It suggests not a personality, but an influence; not a presence, but a pervasive spirit. For since that tremendous time, when the eyes of the whole world were turned upon the gentle figure that moved like a benediction through the horrors of the hospitals of Scutari, Miss Nightingale's life has had something of the quiet of the cloister. It is not merely that her health was finally broken by her unexampled labours: it is that, combined with the courage of the chivalrous world into which she was born, she has the reticence of a temperament that shrinks from publicity with mingled scorn and humility.

This rare union of courage and modesty is illustrated by her whole career. When, after a girlhood spent in her native Italy for she was born in Florence, as her only sister, afterwards Lady Verney, was born in Naples and in wanderings in many lands, she decided on her life work of nursing, she returned from her hard apprenticeship in many institutions, and especially in the Kaiserswerth Institution on the Rhine the first Protestant nursing home in Germany to take the management of the Sanatorium for Sick Ladies in Harley Street. In those days of our grandmothers, woman was still in the mediaeval state of development. She was a pretty ornament of the drawing-room, subject to all the proprieties expressed in " prunes and prisms," She had no duty except the duty of being pretty and proper, no part in the work of the world except the task higher than that of seeing that her overlord's slippers were in the right place.

The advent of Florence Nightingale into Harley Street was like a challenge to all that was feminine and Early Victorian. A woman, a lady of birth and culture, as manager of an institution ! The thing was impossible. The polite world thrilled with indignation at the outrage. " It was related at the time " —I quote from the yellow manuscript before me—" that if she had forged a bill, or eloped, or betted her father's fortune away at Newmarket, she could not have provoked a more virulent hue and cry than she did by settling herself to a useful work." And it was not society alone that assailed her now and later. " From the formalists at home, who were shocked at her handling keys and keeping accounts, to the jealous and quizzing doctors abroad, who would have suppressed her altogether, and the vulgar among the nurses, who whispered that she ate the jams and the jellies in a corner, she had all the hostility to encounter which the great may always expect from those who are too small to apprehend their mind and ways." But she had a dominating will and a dear purpose in all the acts of her life. She was indifferent to the judgment of the world. She saw the path, and trod it with fearless steps wherever it led.

Within her sphere she was an autocrat. Lord Stanmore, in his Memoir of Sidney Herbert the War Minister whose letter inviting Miss Nightingale to go to the Crimea crossed her letter offering to go has criticised her severe tongue and defiance of authority. But in the presence of the appalling problem of humanity that faced her and her band of thirty-eight nurses, what were red tape and authority? As she passed down through those four miles of beds, eighteen inches apart, each bearing its burden of pain and suffering, her passion of pity turned to a passion of indignation at the wanton neglect of the poor instruments of government, and she turned and rent the authors of the wrong. The hospital was chaos. There were neither hospital accessories, nor medical appliances, nor changes of clothing, nor proper food. It was a time for bitter speech and defiance of authority. And Florence Nightingale, her sight seared and her ears ringing with the infinite agony, thundered at the War Office until the crime was undone and her own powerful control was set up over all the hospitals of the East.

And now the war is over, the long avenue of death and suffering that has been her home has vanished, and she sets sail for England. The world is ringing with her deeds. England awaits her with demonstrations of national gratitude unparalleled in history. She takes an assumed name, steals back by an unexpected route, and escapes, exhausted and unrecognised, to the peace of her father's house at Lea Hurst, in the quiet valley of the Derwent. And when later the nation expresses its thanks by raising a fund of 50,000 for her benefit, .she quietly hands it over to found the institution for training nurses at St. Thomas's Hospital. And with that act of radiant unselfishness she establishes the great modern move-ment of nursing. Mrs. Gamp flees for ever before the lady with the lamp.

For Florence Nightingale is not a mere figure of romance. It is beautiful to think of the ministering angel moving with her lamp down the long lanes of pain at Scutari, to hear those pathetic stories of the devotion of the rough soldiers all writing down her name as the name they loved, of the dying boy who wanted to see her pass because he could kiss her shadow as it moved across the pillow. But there have been many noble and self-sacrificing nurses, many who had as great a passion for suffering humanity as hers. To think of her only as a heroine in the romance of life is to mistake her place in history as well as to offend her deepest feelings.

She is much more than a heroine of romance. She is the greatest woman of action this nation produced in the last century perhaps the greatest woman of action this country has ever produced. She is the type of the pioneer one of those rare personalities who reshape the contours of life. She was not simply the lady with the lamp; she was the lady with the brain and the tyrannic will, and in her we may discover the first clear promise of that woman's revolution which plays so large a part in the world today. The hand that smoothed the hot pillow of the sufferer was the same hand that rent the red tape and broke, defiant of officialism, the locked door to get at the bedding within. Nursing to her was not a pastime or an occupation: it was a revelation. The child, whose dolls were always sick and being wooed back to life, who doctored the shepherd's dog in the valley of the Derwent, and bound up her boy cousin's sudden wound, was born with the fever of revolution in her as truly as a Danton or a Mazzini. She saw the world full of suffering, and beside the pillow—ignorance and Sarah Gamp. Her soul revolted against the grim spectacle, and she gave herself with single-eyed devotion to the task of reform.

There is about her something of the sleepless fury of the fanatic; but she differs from the fanatic in this, that her mighty indignation is controlled by her powerful understanding and by her cold, almost icy common sense. She has been the subject of more sentimental writing than any one of her time; but she is the least sentimental of women, and has probably dissolved fewer emotions in tears than any of her contemporaries. She has had something better to do with her emotions than waste them in easy lamentations. She has turned them to iron and used them mercilessly to break down the stupidities that encompass the world of physical suffering and to crush the opposition of ignorance and professional interest. All who have come in conflict with her have, like Sidney Herbert, had to bow to her despotic will, and to-day, old and lonely, forgotten by the great world that ebbs and flows by her home near Hyde Park corner, she works with the same governed passion and concentration that she revealed in the great tragedy of sixty years ago.

Truly seen, therefore, the Crimean episode is only an incident in her career. Her title to rank among the great figures of history would have been as unchallengeable without that tremendous chapter.

For her work was not incidental; but fundamental; not passing, but permanent. She, too, divides the crown with " Old Timotheus "----

He raised a mortal to the skies, She brought an angel down.

When good Pastor Fleidner, the head of the Kaiserswerth Institution, laid his hands at parting on her bowed head, she went forth to work a revolution; and to-day every nurse that sits through the dim hours by the restless bed of pain is in a real sense the gracious product of that revolution.

She has made nursing a science. She has given it laws; she has revealed the psychology of suffering. How true, for example, is this:

I have seen in fevers the most acute suffering produced from the patient in a hut not being able to see out of a window... . I remember in my own case a nosegay of wild flowers being sent me, and from that moment recovery becoming more rapid. People say it is the effect on the patient's mind. It is no such thing; it is on the patient's body, too. . . . Volumes are now written and spoken about the effect of the mind on the body. . . I wish more was thought of the effect of the body on the mind.

She has moved mountains, but her ideal is still far off. For she wants not merely a profession of nurses, but a nation of nurses every mother a health nurse and every nurse " an atom in the hierarchy of the Ministers of the Highest." It is a noble dream, and she has brought it within the grasp of the realities of that future which, as she says, " I shall not see, for I am old."

I put the yellow manuscript back into the envelope where it has lain for half a century. Sixteen hundred articles did Harriet Martineau write for the Daily News. They are buried in the bound volumes of the issues of long ago. One still remains unpublished; the last word happily still unwritten.

Home | More Articles | Email: