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Flo Nightingale: remembering the Lady with the Lamp” who helped shape the modern world

9 April 2020

As the remarkable effort to build NHS Nightingale in the ExCeL Centre grabs the headlines, we’re all being reminded of the extraordinary woman universally acknowledged to be the founder of modern nursing.

Most of us learned in school about her exploits in Scutari during the awfulness of the Crimean War. In a first for the British army, they let a civilian build and run a field hospital – and in the process revolutionize the way casualties were treated, with an enormous emphasis on keeping everything clean. (They only let her do it only because she was a friend of Sidney Herbert, the Secretary for War, and kept asking him. She knew all about the importance of networking.)

But there’s a lot we likely didn’t learn in school, like the fact that she wasn’t simply a nurse. She was exceptionally well educated for a woman of her day – indeed, for a man or a woman of any day! She could speak and write several European languages, and she had travelled widely. She was also a brilliant statistician, and put her gifts to work in a series of reports (eight) and books (17) that had huge impact on healthcare policy. In fact, one reason she was so influential was that she loved numbers almost as much as people! As one of her relatives said, “when Flo was exhausted, the sight of a column of figures was perfectly reviving to her.” She also worked enormously hard. There are stories of her getting up before dawn day after day to go over government reports before breakfast.

And one more thing. You probably weren’t told in school that she was a deeply committed evangelical Christian.

‘It is such a blessing’, she wrote in her diary, ‘to have been called, however unworthy, to be the handmaid of the Lord.’ It was in her teens that she decided she would devote her life to nursing. ‘God has spoke to me and called me to His service’, she wrote in February of 1837 at the age of 17. That was the start of a remarkable life of commitment and achievement. Despite parental pressure she turned down offers of marriage from several eligible young men. She took advice from all kinds of people – from Julia Ward Howe (who went on to write the American battle hymn “Mine eyes have seen the glory”) and Cardinal Manning, who advised her not to become a Catholic as she didn’t believe everything Catholics believe – and then helped recruit a group of sisters to join her field hospital.

Flo was a visionary, and she didn’t pull her punches! In her famous Notes on Nursing(1860), she writes: ‘No man, not even a doctor, ever gives any other definition of what a nurse should be than this – devoted and obedient. This definition would do just as well for a porter. It might even do for a horse. It would not do for a policeman.’

During the American Civil War, she was asked for advice on tending to wounded soldiers by both sides. Forty years later, the UK instituted a new and very special royal honour – the Order of Merit (OM). It was awarded to her just five years later, in 1907, when she was 87. It would be nearly 60 years before another woman would be deemed worthy of an OM.

As we pray for nurses and doctors at NHS Nightingale, let’s remember the Lady with the Lamp – whose faith drove her to achieve so much for the kingdom.

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