Florence Nightingale’s True Calling

Florence Nightingale
Her forte was administration not nursing





She denied she kicked every prick to get things done.

Florence Nightingale would be a saint today if she had been a Catholic, and she might have been a Catholic if she had followed her inclination to be one in 1852. As far back as 1844 she had admired the Catholic sisters of charity; she asked Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe if it would be “unsuitable and unbecoming” to take up charity as the sisters had done. He replied in the affirmative, but said she should “go forward” if called to the vocation. When Protestants in Scutari accused her of being a Catholic, an Irish clergyman remarked that she was a member of the Good Samaritan Sect. Some of the Protestants in turn were accused by other Protestants of adhering to the Socinian heresy. Such were the absurdities impeding good works.

Sainted woman, indeed. Given the formidable obstacles the Angel of Crimea faced, her success was in fact nothing short of miraculous. Whether she be sainted or not, the fame of The Lady With A Lamp is well warranted. Only Our Lady of Sorrows outshines her works. Although she believed not in the existence of germs, the fearless Lady-in-Chief certainly believed in loving kindness, soap and water, good clean air, and the better administration of everything – the death rate of patients at Scutari dropped from 60% to 1% in a few months. Wherefore Florence Nightingale changed the world forever and much for the better – there is not a nurse in the world who does not follow in her footsteps.

I am tempted to recount her deeds and give all due credit to her Band of Angels and to her supporters and admirers, from the Queen on down to the humble citizens who kissed her shadow when she passed them by on the street. Much credit would be due to the Radical paper, The Times, the first newspaper to cover a war with embedded reporters, for exposing the horrid conditions of the great blunder called the Crimean War and for raising funds from the appalled public to supply necessaries to the sick and wounded and dying patriots, who were called “scum” by their arrogant and incompetent officers. But I must refrain from the formidable task of retelling the tale. I do not have enough time on my hands to add another biography based on the many excellent biographies already written even though I would have a chance at fame and fortune: best-selling histories of histories have received the Pulitzer Prize. In any case, what Florence Nightingale did is already well known on the whole, for almost everyone knows a little bit of her story if not all. What I did not know and wondered much about – until I read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Florence Nightingale – is what induced such a fine Englishwoman to kick against the pricks set up against progress in her field. She denied she had kicked every prick to get things done, but we can understand why people got that impression given her persistence when confronted by Red Tape.

Saul rebelled against his Lord as if he were an ox kicking against the pricks goading him to obey, thus driving them deeper and deeper into his tormented flesh. Florence, on the other hand, responded dutifully to the higher calling once she knew what it was. But almost everywhere she turned for the sake of charity, pricks were set up against her by wicked forces for fear that someone’s oxcart might be overturned and the goods therein spilled out into places more deserving. Do we not have such sayings as, No good deed will be left unpunished? Someone will invariably try to thwart the doing of good deeds if they receive advance notice that an attempt will be made. Flo encountered formidable impediments when she put her right foot on the high road. We are reminded of something Plutarch wrote to the effect that Pompey got along famously until he tried to save his country. Florence like Plutarch had the habit of writing. Besides writing letters for her dying ‘children” into the wee hours of the morning at Scutari, she produced long administrative reports of material transactions incidental to her work as well as accounts of her struggles with human resources. For example, she described her travails in a March 6, 1856 letter to Samuel Smith from Scutari:

Dear Uncle Sam:

I am very anxious to correct a false impression, which seems to exist in your mind, that I have had a steady & consistent support from the War Office – that, such as being the case, I kick against every prick – & am unduly impatient of opposition, inevitable in my or any situation, to my work.

The facts are exactly the reverse. I have never chosen to trouble the W.O. with my difficulties, because it has given me so feeble & treacherous a support that I have always expected to hear it say, ‘Could we not shelve Miss. N.? We dare say she does a great deal of good. But she quarrels with the authorities & we can’t have that.’

I have therefore fought my own battle – not only as I can truly say, unsupported by any official out here, with the exception of Gen’l Storks, so that I was amazed the other day at getting the loan of the little Gov’t tug for carrying good s – but exposed to every petty persecution, opposition & trickery that you can mention.

I have never had time to keep any records whatever except in the way of accounts. But I should have liked to have left some record of the way in which officials can torment & hinder a work. And, as they now see, torment, not only unmolested but rewarded, as every man who has been in any way instrumental in our great calamity, has received promotion or honors.

I will give you the slightest, pettiest instance of the hindrance which the pettiest official can make out here, if so minded.

When I came out, an order to furnish me with money was, of course, forwarded from the W.O. to the Purveyors here. I have never availed myself of this to the amount of one farthing. On the contrary, they have been frequently in my debt to the amount of lbs 1,500. But the Senior Purveyor at Balaclava refuses to cash my Cheques, for no other reason discoverable than the love of petty arrogance & the hope of injuring my credit, in the minds of ignorant servants.

As I think it is a pity that he should have then pleasure of doing this, I now send up CASH to the Crimea or take it.

Otherwise I could, of course, if I chose to complain, get an order to compel him not to refuse my Cheque.

This is the little Fitzgerald, who, after a course of successful villainy, has like id genus omne, been promoted to be Dep’y Purveyor in Chief, with back pay & all his little soul desires. This is Dr. Hall’s doing. But his is only one specimen of the promotions.

I do not like to use hard words. But I have no time to give the facts which would support them. But even to Sir J. MacNeill’s Report I could add a few facts which, if they were told (I being now one of the oldest inhabitants in Scutari & the Crimea) would make us feel that the times of the Scribes & Pharisees were nothing to these.

This little Fitzgerald has starved every Hospital when his store was full – & not, as it appears, from ignorance, like some of the honorable men who have been our murderers, but from malice prepense.

I know that you think the Credit of a wild imagination belongs to me. But I cannot but fancy that the W.O. is afraid of the Irish Brigade – and know that Card. Wiseman, who is supposed, right or wrong, to have some influence over Hawes, has been busy in this matter.

A ‘sot’ in the hands of ‘habiles mechans’ can do as much, as I know to my cost. And perhaps you do not know that Card. Wiseman has publicly, in his Insults, noticed with praise Mrs. Bridgeman’s Insurrection. Now Mrs. Bridgeman & Fitzgerald are one.

Fitzgerald topped up, with his ‘Confidential’ Report against me – for which he is rewarded, while a poor little Ass’t Surgeon, for a true & public letter in the ‘Times’, is dismissed the service.

I assure you that our utter disgust at these latter promotions would tempt us, (the few honest men as I hope,) to preach a Crusade against the Horse Gds & War Dep’t, feeling as we do now that not one step has been gained by our two years’ fiery trial & that more Aireys, Cardigans, Halls & Fitzgeralds will be propagated for the next war.

Believe me faithfully yours,

Florence Nightingale

[“Cardigans” appertains to Lord Cardigan, James Thomas Brudenel (1797-1868), notorious for his hot temper and for leading the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade].

Miss Nightingale’s letter merely describes a small portion of the hindrances; yet she persisted until the war was over; and even then she would not leave her nursing post until the soldiers had gone home. A battleship would have returned her to the mother country for a hero’s welcome, but she would have nothing to do with glory: she found her own, discreet way back to England. And then she continued to work overtime for reform; no doubt she would have reformed the entire British bureaucracy if she had obtained leave to do so from the men in power – only men could have such power at the time. Miss Nightingale, by the way, was not a ruthless cutter of the monstrous Red Tape; to get her way, she saw to it that men followed their own rules right away.

Whatever possessed Florence Nightingale, a woman born into high station, to do so much for her people when so many people were dead set against it? Today we expect wealthy and noble women to occupy themselves with charitable work; for God’s sake, what else have they to do? A Victorian woman was expected to marry and attend to her family; if she was charitably inclined, she certainly would not take up nursing, which at the time was more or less the occupation of vulgar drunken women and whores who slept with their patients. Florence Nightingale landed in her vocation because, much to her dismay in the form of guilt feelings, she was possessed or called by her god to do something good for society; she did not quite know what.

Flo’s father inherited considerable property from his uncle. Her mother’s father was rich man; a member of Commons for 46 years – he tended to fight for lost causes. Florence, so named for the city made famous during the Renaissance, wanted for nothing material as a child. For Flo her parents wanted a liberal education appropriate to her high station and a marriage to a suitable husband. She was her father’s daughter more than her mother’s, wherefore she was self-righteous, and her elder sister Parthe resented her and was perpetually cross.

Flo sorely craved companionship in her teens, She later wished she had not wasted so much time on corresponding with others; the writing habit she developed certainly came in handy during her administrative career, and we would not know her and her work so well today without it. We cannot blame her family for Flo’s loneliness. She like all children brought her own peculiar disposition to the dinner table. She was situated better than most children of the realm, yet she was an unhappy girl. In fact she imagined she was a monster. Fearing that strangers would discover that she was an alien, she starred as the heroine of her dreams. Perchance she dreamed too much for her own good. She suffered collapses and was bid-ridden from time to time. Likewise in her adulthood did she spurn celebrity and wind up sick in bed, where she still did the administrative work of ten men. Her psychological state in her youth would require expensive therapy in our drug-ridden age – the nosology of her malease (obsolete English word) would be too complex for our consideration here. Her mind was clear and quick, and she perceived matters realistically, yet she was abnormally sensitive and given to emotional exaggeration. Suffice it to say that the neurosis common to her own age was Romanticism of the French sort, the somewhat hysterical and perverse symptoms which would not do for Englishwomen despite Byron’s despairing contribution to ennui and malaise; hence symptoms had to be confined to fainting over the failure of someone to write a letter, rather than over the failure of a lover to show up for an adulterous tryst. Lady Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, by the way, loved Flo and wrote verses about her.

Despite her inner struggles with her god and the fact that parties made her feel guilty, Florence developed into a gracious, charming and witty young lady, a debutante seen at the best balls. At age seventeen (1837) she came out in France, where she share Joan of Arc’s experience with a divine but objective voice: “God spoke to me and called me to His service.” And on to Florence, Italy, where Florence was absolutely mad about the opera and the Italian freedom movement. And on to Geneva, where she became the disciple of the great Sismondi. Back in Paris to escape an impending war, she met and became good friends with Mary Clark, the influential salon hostess who, unlike her sponsor Madame Racamier, was not beautiful or well off but who managed to revive the salon life so important for the progress of modern European civilization. Back in London in 1839, her conscience bothered her about greatly for not answering God’s call, preferring, instead, parties and balls. She wanted to overcome “the desire to shine in society.” Her parents knew nothing of her quiet desperation, the agony and despair under the smiling face. There was some disagreement over her desire to take up mathematics: her mom was against it because math, she thought, was of no use to a married lady of high station; her father also disapproved, favoring history and philosophy. Flo wound up with a compromise – eight math lessons. As we know from her later life, she remained fond of mathematics and often resorted to the budding science of statistics to support her professional calling.

So at age 22 Florence was a young society lady, a vivacious intellectual figure who cut quite a figure on the dance floor. “All I do is done to win admiration.” And she was a girl who was enslaved by the habit of dreaming, and she was ashamed of herself for not responding to her god’s calls – many years later, in 1874, she wrote of four calls to a definite but unclear course. Mystical union with her god would not suffice: she must do his works.

As for marriage, there was indeed a suitor in the form of a poet and philanthropist: Richard Monkcton Milnes. She saw him often and was most interested in his philanthropic work. During the 40s she had scenes with her family over her fancy for nursing, which they considered a contemptible calling indeed, one that would put to waste all the Latin, Greek, poetry, and music lessons afforded their daughter. She proceeded to occupy herself with the study of hospital reports and Blue Books on public health. She enjoyed housekeeping; putting the house in order, making lists, and so on. Otherwise she was miserable: she collapsed; bed rest was prescribed as usual. Recreation was called for. Onwards, to Rome in 1847, and dancing. Back to London in 1849 for more misery, dreaming, self-hating suicidal thoughts. Flo fantasized of marrying her suitor and doing heroic deeds with him; but she eventually rejected his proposal and decided that her intellectual, moral and active nature, together with her dreaming and fainting spells, disqualified her for worldly marriage. To Egypt in 1849. More dreaming spells. Her diary is filled with references to God’s calls. Berlin in 1850.

In 1851 Flo writes from England, “My present life is suicide…. I have no desire but to die…. In my thirty-first years I see nothing desirable but death.” She went to work at Kaiserwerth that year – hospital, orphanage, prison, school – and worked with children and patients; she said she learned nothing of nursing there since there was none practiced. She visited her parents in Cologne; they treated her like a criminal. In 1852 she wants to go to work in a Catholic infirmary; her big sister Parthe accuses Flo of wanting to kill her and has delusions and a nervous breakdown. In 1853 Flo takes an unpaid administrative position for the reorganization and relocation of the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances. She did a lot of practical nursing there, but she soon realized nursing was useless without proper administration. She learned to do many useful things: procuring a stove, furnishings, call bells and so on; managing coal deliveries, keeping accounts, supplying the kitchen, administering drugs so patients were not poisoned.

Miss Nightingale was finally happy. No more parties and balls. She was in her natural element, i.e. her Calling. In 1854 her apprenticeship was over and war was had with Russia. The Times broke the story about the outrageous conditions in Crimea: the pathetic state of sick and wounded soldiers who were dying more from neglect than from war. Her friend Sidney Herbert, Secretary of War, knew whom to call to service. He did not have to make the call, for she was already on her way.

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