South London Memories: Shining a light on Nightingale

The importance of washing your hands to combat Covid-19 is vital in today’s ongoing battle against the virus. Florence Nightingale, 160 years ago, pioneered the procedure in her battle to combat infection in Victorian hospitals. An exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum, at St Thomas’ Hospital, shows the scale of the change her medical leadership inspired. Nightingale in 200 Objects, People & Places, marks the 200th anniversary of her birth. TOBY PORTER explains the online material and her enduring influence.

From her late teens, Florence Nightingale (12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910) became captivated by the idea of becoming a nurse; a passion that distressed her parents, as nursing was viewed as an unfit profession for a respectable woman.

Florence studied nursing secretly, defying her parents and the expectations of society, which, she believed, rendered middle class women unable to make full use of their energy, drive and intelligence.

She began her nursing training in Germany, at which point she wrote: “Now I know what it is to love life!”

Florence was working at a Harley Street nursing home when she learned of the horrific conditions facing British army soldiers in their Crimean War hospital base at Scutari.

The Secretary of State for War asked her to lead a team of 38 nurses to make urgent improvements. Faced with appalling conditions, Florence and her nurses (whom she called her ‘daughters’) worked tirelessly, walking miles of hospital corridors to attend to thousands of casualties, bringing order, organisation, new supplies and cleanliness.

Florence Nightingale’s Medicine Chest

She instilled discipline among her nurses, whom she ensured were treated with respect and who, in turn, treated soldiers equally, regardless of rank.

At Scutari, she set up reading rooms and a non-alcoholic café and a banking system.

Reports from the Illustrated London News and The Times fixed Florence Nightingale as the popular public symbol of the war and propelled her to instant fame as the Lady with the Lamp.

Florence loathed the – in her own words – “buzz fuzz” of celebrity, shunned the limelight and, on her return to Britain, travelled as Miss Smith.

The following 50 years of Florence Nightingale’s life are often glossed over in favour of
her Crimean efforts, but it was in this period of her life that she transformed healthcare, inspiring generations of nurses.

She used research and evidence to physically change the design and structure of hospitals and their working practices in ways which remain today – in ward design, nurse training, hygiene, infection control, evidence-based healthcare, and the compassionate treatment of patients.

Florence Nightingale’s Lamp or fanoos

All the while, Florence was suffering bouts of fever, insomnia, exhaustion and depression.

David Green, director of the Florence Nightingale Museum, said “The work of Florence Nightingale has rarely been more relevant in the 200 years since she was born.

“Her transformative effect on healthcare and the esteem in which she is still held is clear in the naming of the three new temporary NHS Nightingale hospitals in London, Birmingham and Manchester.

“While we have, sadly, had to close the museum for now, our new online version of the bicentenary exhibition is filled with links to the ways in which we have to live at the moment.

The whole of the country is practising methods taught by Florence Nightingale.

She would be proud as we all are of all of the healthcare workers who are working on the front line to treat patients, fight the infection and reduce casualties.”


 

NIGHTINGALE ON HYGIENE

To mark Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary and deliver the thanks of a nation to all health care workers, Guy’s Hospital and St Thomas’ Hospital will be illuminated by a giant image of Florence Nightingale and a message of gratitude from 8pm-11pm on Monday and Tuesday.

Florence Nightingale stressed the vital importance of hand washing and cleanliness throughout her life.

Her work leading 38 nurses to bring cleanliness and order to the British Army’s Crimean War hospital base at Scutari in Turkey began a lifetime of dedication to improving nursing and reducing the spread of infection.

Florence Nightingale’s writing is packed with advice that has rarely rung more true:

  • “Compare the dirtiness of the water in which you have washed when it is cold without soap, cold with soap, hot with soap. You will find the first has hardly removed any dirt at all, the second a little, the third a great deal more.” – from Notes on Nursing, January 1860.
  • “you ought to use fresh water as freely for the skin as fresh air for the lungs”
    From Notes on Nursing for the Labouring Classes
  • “If infection exists, it is preventable.”
    From, Notes on Hospitals, Third Edition
  •  “cleanliness and fresh air … are the very life of the patients”
The Scutari uniform apron and sash designed by Florence Nightingale 

An address to the staff and trainees of The Nightingale Training School for Nurses
Nightingale was a pioneer of evidence-based healthcare – gathering data to prove the importance of cleanliness and sanitation – her passion for data led to her being the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society.

Among the key exhibits at the exhibition are:

  • The ‘lamp’ (actually a Turkish lantern) carried by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.
  • The Scutari Sash designed by Florence – the first nursing uniform.
  • Florence Nightingale’s medicine chest, containing glass jars of ‘domestic’ remedies. Florence took this medicine chest to the Crimean War for her and her nurses to use if needed. Most of the medicines are for upset stomachs or diarrhoea, showing Florence’s foresight. It also contains a tiny set of scales and measures, and a glass beaker for measuring liquids.
  • The bad-tempered – now stuffed – pet owl, Athena, who used to enjoy being carried around in Florence’s pocket.

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