|Florence Nightingale visiting the sick. Wellcome Library, London|
For generations, Florence Nightingale has been known as the Saintly Angel of Mercy or the Lady with the Lamp, and her story has been told many times. She arrived in Scutari in November of 1854 with thirty-eight women volunteers, sent by her close friend, the war secretary, Sydney Herbert, to reform the army hospitals in which thousands of wounded and ill soldiers were being treated in closely packed beds by overworked doctors, male medical orderlies, and untrained women. She became an instant media star and in a way has remained so ever since.
Now Maev Kennedy, writing in the The Guardian (Mon 3 Sep 2007), reports that new research has emerged shedding light on her personality and casting doubt on her role in single-handedly turning around the situation at the hospital. Official records show that the mortality rate fell significantly once a fresh water supply was introduced, ventilation improved, and the sewers were cleaned out. But it did not fall for some time, and in her first winter there 4,077 soldiers died, mostly of typhus, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.
Reflecting her strong controlling personality, she early on came into collision with Sir John Hall, the chief British army medical officer. In his letters, he described her as an ambitious publicity seeking meddler who was struggling after power. He complained that as soon as she arrived, she tried to take over, squandering resources and going over his head to order supplies from his stores. “She simply ignored his authority. She would no more have dreamed of consulting him about her nurses than she would have sought the opinion of a husband, if she ever had one, about hiring a parlour maid.”
“Returning from the Crimea, [Florence] Nightingale strove to revolutionize the homeland military hospitals by duplicating the reforms she had previously introduced to so much acclaim. When her opponents made common cause against a female interloper, she moved to revolutionize the whole apparatus of organized medicine in Great Britain. Her means to this end was to cultivate an image of feminine modesty, to elevate herself as an object of idolatry, and then to rely upon persuasion, influence, and public opinion to destroy her detractors.”
GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief