On August 12th, we remember Florence Nightingale in our Episcopal Church Year Calendar. My years as chaplain generated interest in the founder of modern nursing, often called “the lady with the lamp” from her work in the military hospital in Turkey during the Crimean War.
What few realize: she was a religious mystic. Two mystical experiences set the course for her life. A call to service at age 17 brought great frustration on two fronts. The first was service with nothing specific and the second was her land-owning family who sought the social life for her as prescribed at that time. It was near age 30 when another mystical experience in Egypt gave resolve and specifics, “service without reputation.” “Think only Thy will.” She connected with Jesus beginning his mission at 30.
Her desire to be a nurse brought great resistance from her family. Nurses not part of a Religious Order were either prostitutes or drunkards. She refused to be a slave to marriage and a social life. She would be “nailed,” her word.
This resistance from family and her inclination brought on periodic depressions, suicidal thoughts, and trance like states of dreaming she called her enemy. Friends of the family would step in to revive her by furthering her interest in the world at large. She was well traveled, France, Italy, Germany, Egypt, and Greece by age 30.
Her father home schooled his daughters in a classical education, including his interest in mathematics. This resulted in Florence becoming an early statistician using research and numbers to make her point and convince others. Her image as the lady with the lamp and getting nursing started during the Crimean war overshadows her huge accomplishments over a fifty year period afterwards. She sought the numbers, studied the numbers, and used the numbers to argue for change in lowering the death rates in hospitals, among soldiers in the army, the slums, and in child birth. She was concerned about prevention and collected data on diet, sanitation, ventilation, over crowding, helping found the Red Cross, the Geneva Convention, etc. She developed the first pie chart diagram to prove her points.
She influenced the health in England, Africa, and India. In England nurses under her direction started public health. She even influenced health care in Davenport, Iowa, indirectly, as Miss Craig Anderson, head nurse and administrator of St. Luke’s Hospital for 20 years, was English trained. When I started as chaplain some still remembered the hymn singing and worship before nurses started their morning duties.
As late as the early 1900’s nursing was not thought of as a socially acceptable occupation in Davenport. When St. Luke’s hospital began and a school of nursing was formed they kept the name of the nursing school separate to not reflect on the hospital. I am talking about changes within the last 150 years.
For Florence Nightingale we are talking about changes that met with powerful resistance from the military doctors and politicians of her day. The changes made in her time were accomplished by a few influential people working within a society that wanted to keep things as they were.
Upon her return from the war her health was such that most of her work was done from her house and bed. I am sure we would call her condition post traumatic stress syndrome today. People still came to her for council and direction and she wrote copious notes, letters, and books to communicate her concepts and always with plenty of statistics to back them up. She lived to be 90 dying in 1910. Her grave has a simple cross with her initials and the two dates: born 1820 and died 1910.
My remarks about Florence Nightingale are all too brief. The Scripture chosen for her day is most appropriate.
Special prayers and thanks for all the health care workers who served through the pandemic. The stressful times cost lives and those living. The stats apparently are 2.3 million retired, etc. The nursing shortage will take some time to recover and the experience lost even longer. Hard to measure the loss from experienced nurses except it is real and makes a difference.
Prayer for Florence Nightingale: Life-giving God, you alone have power over life and death, over health and sickness: Give power, wisdom, and gentleness to those who follow the lead of Florence Nightingale, that they, bearing with them your presence, may not only heal but bless, and shine as lanterns of hope in the darkest hours of pain and fear; through Jesus Christ, the healer of body and soul, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
Marlin Whitmer, B.C.C. (ret.)