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The Florence Nightingale Museum

By Mark Bostridge

Florence Nightingale

Thanks to the legend of the Lady with the Lamp, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is the most famous Victorian after Queen Victoria herself.

Few individuals in their lifetime have reached the level of fame and adulation attained by Florence Nightingale as a result of her efforts at Scutari and in the Crimea, nursing the sick and wounded of the Crimean War.

Fewer still have the power to of continuing to inspire controversy in the way Nightingale does, a century after her death.

She has been honoured and admired, criticized and ridiculed. More often than not, she has been misrepresented and misunderstood.

The new Museum

This month's opening of a new Florence Nightingale Museum, as part of 2010's centenary commemorations, will help to sweep away some of the accretions of myth attaching to Nightingale's reputation, allowing us to see the extraordinary scope and importance of her life.

The Museum, in the shadow of St Thomas's, the London hospital where Nightingale founded her training school for nurses in 1860, is a state of the art affair.

Lighting and sound contribute to a dramatic setting, while interactive and touch screen exhibits enlarge upon the information provided by objects and pictures from the collection.

One of the famous lamps, a Turkish lantern, or fanoos, associated with Nightingale's Scutari expedition of 1854 is here, as is Florence's owl Athena, who died and was stuffed in the days leading up to her mistress's departure on her historic mission.

A life in three pavilions

The story of Florence Nightingale is told in three 'pavilions.' Nightingale was a great supporter of the pavilion style of hospital architecture which reduced mortality rates by improved ventilation.

Florence Nightingale Museum
The new Florence Nightingale Museum opens in May 2010

The first, 'The Gilded Cage', centres on Nightingale's sense of frustration as a highly educated young woman, from a wealthy upper middle-class family, who was prevented from following her ambition to be a nurse in the 1840s and early 1850s.

The second pavilion, 'The Calling', reflecting Florence's underlying belief in her call to God's service, recreates the climax of Nightingale's life: her experiences during the Crimean War in the years 1854 to 1856, when she led a Government-sponsored party of nurses to the military hospitals at Scutari on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, and then to the Crimea itself, and in so doing became a national heroine.

The final pavilion, 'Reform and Inspire', focuses on the little known sequel to the Crimean years: the half-century during which Nightingale's reforming power was felt across the entire public health spectrum - not just nursing, but also hospital design, midwifery, workhouse reform, army health reform, together with the pioneering use of statistical data to record and analyse the nation's health.

Nightingale's all-encompassing vision was not limited solely to Britain and Europe. It reached right to the heart of the Empire, to India, a country she never visited but whose problems, of famine, poor sanitation, and oppression of the peasant class by unscrupulous landowners, were a major concern in the latter part of her life.

More than a nurse

Florence Nightingale was never simply a nurse.

In fact her hands-on nursing experience was limited to two short periods of training in Germany before the Crimean War, and to the first months at Scutari, when she and her nursing team were faced with appalling calamity of soldiers dying in their thousands, not from battle wounds but from disease.

Nightingale worked hard to impose new standards of hygiene and organisation on a terrible situation. It marked - however experimentally at first - the ushering in of a new age of professional nursing, as well as the birth of the enduring legend of the Lady with the Lamp itself.

Florence Nightingale
Florence only had limited nurse training

But the appealing sentiment of the legend has obscured some equally, if not more, important, landmark achievements.

To single out just one: across four decades, from the 1860s to the 1890s, the final decade of her working life, Nightingale struggled hard to introduce trained nurses into workhouses.

This was a bold step, replacing the care of sick paupers by other workhouse inmates, with proper humane treatment.

It stands as a ringing declaration of the principle, brought to fruition in the foundation of the National Health Service some forty years after Nightingale's death, of free health care provision for those who can't afford it.

A national system of hospitals wouldn't have been possible if the existing infirmaries had still been staffed by pauper nurses with the availability of only minimal medical care.

Health problems

One significant change to our understanding of Florence Nightingale's own personality, which the Museum seeks to illustrate, is that we now know her to have been a sufferer from a chronic form of the disease brucellosis.

She probably caught this as a result of drinking goat's milk in the Crimea in 1855, and the disease, at its worst in the 1860s, kept its grip on Nightingale for more than a quarter-of-a-century after her return for the Crimean War in 1856.

Far from being a malingerer, or lying about her health, as earlier generations believed, Nightingale was forced into seclusion from the great pain she suffered, and undertook her greatest work from her bed.

At various points Nightingale's work took on a pressing urgency as it was widely believed that her death was imminent.

As well as being subject to agonising muscle pain in the form of severe spondylitis, Nightingale was also subject to serious depression, which may account for the sharpness of some of her remarks in her vast correspondence.

Writing her life

Florence Nightingale
She founded the first professional training school for nurses. The site is now the Florence Nightingale Museum
She published over 200 books, reports and pamphlets on nursing and healthcare
She invented the pie chart
She inspired the founding of the Red Cross. The organisation still awards a medal in her honour
She was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit, the first woman to be awarded the Freedom of the City of London and the first woman to be elected to the Royal Statistical Society

When my biography of Nightingale was published in 2008, it was the first full-length biography for over half-a-century.

Nightingale's long life, the 200 or so books and pamphlets she produced, combined with the thousands of letters she wrote, certainly make her a difficult, awe-inspiring subject.

However, I was very fortunate to gain access to a wonderful fund of new material, namely the letters written by members of the vast, extended Nightingale family about its most famous member.

Preserved in the archive at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, the former home of Florence's sister Parthenope, this treasure trove of correspondence allowed a vital now perspective on some of the most salient aspects of Florence Nightingale's life and career.

What I hope I have done - and what the new Museum hopes also to achieve - is a more balanced view of this commanding figure: no longer simply a saintly lady floating through the wards at Scutari, nor a woman consumed with demonic energy, as Lytton Strachey portrayed her in Eminent Victorians, but one of the greatest administrative minds of the Victorian Age - or indeed of any age - and a vital contributor to the birth of a modern health care system.

"Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend" by Mark Bostridge is published by Penguin

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