David Payne on Florence Nightingale

David Payne Today, 100 years ago, Florence Nightingale died aged 90. Much has been written about the Lady with the Lamp, who left behind her aristocratic life to nurse wounded soldiers in the Crimea, returning to London to help found the modern nursing profession, campaign for sanitary reform and hospital design, and hone her skills as a statistician, before retiring to her bed with brucellosis.

Sixteen years ago I met Sybylla Bonham Carter, a cousin of Nightingale’s and the last person alive to have met her. Then in her 90s and up in London for the day from her home in Sonning Common, Berkshire, she vividly remembered a childhood walk with her father across Hyde Park to her cousin’s home in South Street, Mayfair. It was the briefest of meetings and cousin Florence by that stage was very deaf, but it inspired Sybylla to become a wartime nurse, as many upper class women then did.

Bloombsuryite Lytton Strachey was the first Nightingale biography to debunk the Lady with the Lamp myth in Eminent Victorians and detect something “less agreeable” in her character. I once read a history of the St Thomas’ Hospital Nighintgale Nursing School where she described the Nightingale nurses as “loud and nasty.” Nightingale wrote for the BMJ twice. The last time was an editorial about the late Mrs Wardroper, matron of St Thomas’ Hospital, in 1893.  A colleague who located it last year was struck by its pompous tone. Florence also graced the BMJ’s front cover in its 2008 Christmas edition.

In May this year the newly refurbished Nightingale Museum hosted an exhibition which highlights the role of Edinburgh surgeon John Sutherland, who worked with her in the Crimea but whose role has gone largely unrecorded. Sutherland had an uneasy relationship with the Lady with the Lamp, urged her to be “more perceptive and less doctrinal” when he offered feedback on an early version of her Notes on Nursing, and once described himself as overworked and abused…one of your wives.” He also advised her on how to win over Queen Victoria.

But when he died in 1891, Nightingale said of him in a letter to The Times: “I was his pupil both in sanitary administration and practice and am anxious for my master’s fame.”

Nightingale’s single minded determination is understandable. She resisted family and society’s presure to marry and incurred the anger of her family by wanting to become a nurse, but she followed God’s calling (he spoke to her four times, she claimed) and transformed the profession’s reputation. In 1907 became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit.

In recent times her life and reputation have been subject to constant comparisons with Mary Seacole, who nursed soldiers also during the Crimea, but whose “forgotten” status is attributed to racism. Seacole’s contribution pales in comparison to Nightnigale’s who utlimately used her superior social position and family connections to grab the attention of government ministers.

I think Mark Bostridge, Nightingale’s most recent biographer, was right to explain why she took steps to distance herself from Seacole’s legacy.  This isn’t to downplay Seacole’s role. Nightingale didn’t need to trade on her connections. She could have returned to a life of tranquility following the Crimea, but chose not to. She was an inveterate letter writer, even from her sickbed.

David Payne is editor, bmj.com and doc2doc.bmj.com