Beware Bad Smells

Hugh Pennington

  • Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend by Mark Bostridge
    Viking, 646 pp, £25.00, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 670 87411 8

As a student at St Thomas’s Hospital, I used to walk the long ‘Nightingale’ wards – Florence Nightingale had not only founded its school of nursing but was influential in the design of the building – and learned to avoid prayer-time because the way out was obstructed by the line of ‘Nightingales’ kneeling at the door in order of seniority. And sometimes I watched patients having ECT in Scutari – the psychiatric clinic too was named in her honour.

Most of the heroes in the history of medicine (nearly all are men) have either discovered a remedy like penicillin or insulin, or developed a vaccine to protect against killer diseases like polio or smallpox, or introduced a bold new surgical procedure like heart transplantation. But Nightingale discovered nothing. Her forte was administration, and her main weapon was statistics. Did she even stalk the wards of the Barrack Hospital at Scutari at night? Yes – but with what to light her way? Mark Bostridge is no revisionist, but he does point out that the evidence from the 1850s has little or nothing to say about the lamp.

Nightingale’s path was enormously eased by her circumstances. Her family was wealthy. Her father educated her broadly and well: at 16 she was being taught chemistry, geography, physics, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and history. She became fluent in French and Italian, was translating Homer and Plato in her teens, and at 19 was learning German. Her knowledge of geology was said by the president of the Geological Society to be bold and broad. Her Unitarian background cultivated an ethos of good works inspired by a belief in the individual’s moral obligation to society. Her father knew many leading figures of the day: Palmerston, Macaulay, Charles Darwin and Annabella Milbanke. In her twenties she came to know Christian von Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador in London, founder of a Protestant hospital in Rome and a German one in London, staffed by deaconesses from a Lutheran establishment at Kaiserswerth, near Düsseldorf.

Although Nightingale’s chosen vocation was wrong-headed in the eyes of her family – nursing was for working-class girls – she waited patiently until her opportunity came. Events provided it. In 1853, after a spell at Kaiserswerth, she was appointed superintendent of the Establishment for Gentlewomen during Illness, located for most of her time there in Upper Harley Street. It catered mainly for governesses in decline or at death’s door. After a year she gave notice – she wished to move on – but before giving up her job she took leave to nurse victims of the Broad Street Pump cholera outbreak in Soho. Between 31 August and 9 September, five hundred residents of the streets around Golden Square died.

Once the outbreak was over she returned to her parents’ home in Derbyshire. Mrs Gaskell was staying there at the time, writing North and South for serialisation in Charles Dickens’s Household Words. ‘She is like a saint,’ Gaskell wrote in a letter. ‘She must be a creature from another race so high & mighty & angelic, doing things by impulse – or some divine inspiration & not by effort & struggle of will … she seems as completely led by God as Joan of Arc.’ But in another letter she commented: ‘She will not go among the villagers now, because her heart and soul are absorbed by her hospital plans, and as she says, she can only attend to one thing at once.’

By this time the Crimean War was well underway. It had many modern features. ‘The British,’ Scientific American reported on 19 May 1855, ‘have displayed great inferiority in military management in the present war with Russia,’ but

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