July 11, 2010
Having worked at Vancouver General Hospital and Woodlands Hospital as a medical Social Worker, I have met many impressive nurses in my life. Recently a nurse lent me a book about the life of Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing. I was astounded by the pervasive lasting impact of Florence’s life. Florence was a one-woman dynamo. Nothing stood in her way. No inefficiency, no corruption, no bureaucracy could ultimately stop her from bringing healing to countless suffering people, particularly those impacted by war. While Florence was a caring individual, she was no ‘pushover’, but rather a brilliant, strong-minded professional, a gifted organizer and statistician. Florence was without a doubt one of the most influential women in the 19th century.
Florence Nightingale is someone who we can all learn from. I am concerned that cultural amnesia may rob us as Canadians of her inspiring story. While her story is still taught in British and South African schools, it is not to be found in the BC public School Curriculum. Is this not a good time to reconsider Florence’s remarkable ongoing influence?
Florence Nightingale was baptized in the Church of England as an infant in Florence, Italy, where she was born in 1820. As a child, Florence was very close to her anti-slavery lobbyist father who, without a son, treated her as his friend and companion. Her father, William Nightingale, a wealthy English landowner, took responsibility for her education and personally taught her Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, history, philosophy and mathematics.
As a teenager, Florence was converted to Jesus Christ, writing in her diary: ‘God spoke to me and called me to His service’. But sixteen years were to pass before her life changed to one of service. Looking back years later, Florence commented: “the ‘Cornerstone’ book which converted me in 1836 –alas! That I should so little have lived up to my conversion.” In her ‘Spiritual Journey’ Journal, Florence wrote: ‘O God, the Father of an infinite Majesty, give me Thy Holy Spirit twenty times a day to convince me of sin, of righteousness, above all to give me love, a real individual love for everyone.’
Florence’s mother, Fanny Nightingale was a domineering woman primarily concerned with finding her daughter a good husband. She was therefore upset by Florence’s decision to reject offer of marriage by several suitors, including the well-connected Lord Houghton. At age of twenty-five, Florence told her parents she wanted to become a nurse. Her parents were totally opposed to the idea, as nursing was associated with alcoholism and prostitution.
In 1851, thirty-one year-old Florence spent three months nursing at the Deaconess Institution at Kaiserswerth, Germany. Upon returning to her family in England, Florence said: ‘I was treated as if I had come from committing a crime’. When in 1853 Florence became a Nursing Superintendent in London, her parents wailed, wept, and refused to eat.
In 1854, Florence Nightingale took 38 “handmaidens of the Lord.” (as she called them) to nurse wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War. This was the first time the government had allowed women to do this. Almost all modern nursing systems and techniques we know today can be traced back to her. According to some reports, Florence suffered from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for the rest of her life.
The Crimean War was, Florence wrote, ‘calamity unparalleled in the history of calamity’. She became famous as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’. The wounded along the four miles of beds loved to see her, because she so obviously cared what was happening, and fought for better conditions for them. One soldier wrote home that the men kissed her shadow on the wall when she passed.
Conditions in this so-called hospital in Scutari, Turkey, were appalling. No operating tables. No medical supplies. No furniture. The lack of beds, for example, meant that the best the wounded soldiers could hope for was to be laid on the floor wrapped in a blanket. Rats ran amongst the dying. On occasion, even dead bodies were forgotten about and left to rot. There had been no washing of linen – and every shirt was crawling with vermin. Florence ordered boilers – and boilers were installed. Florence was able to demonstrate that for every soldier killed in battle in the Crimean War, seven died of infections and preventable disease. Better food, cleanliness and good sanitation could prevent disease and death.
Florence was exhausted, the life drained out of her by her struggles in the Crimea. She was only thirty-six, but she felt her work must surely be over. In fact she had nearly forty years of active working life ahead of her. Although bedridden and unable to walk, she still campaigned tirelessly to improve health standards, publishing over 200 books, reports and pamphlets. Her book ‘Notes on Nursing’ popularly ranked as one of the two most important scientific books of the 19th century. One of the keys to Florence Nightingale’s success in improving health conditions was that she took numerous notes on aspects of health care and organized this information in order to analyze it, draw conclusions, and make appropriate changes. In her notes, she used graphical displays of information similar to what are now known as pie charts. She was recognized for her skill in interpreting large amounts of data and standardizing information such as the classification of disease so that different hospitals could compare their findings. As a result, Florence was the first woman to be elected a fellow of the Statistical Society and given the British Order of Merit.
In September 1856 Florence Nightingale received an invitation to visit Queen Victoria. Upon meeting, Queen Victoria complimented Florence, saying: “You have no self-importance or humbug. No wonder the soldiers love you so.” Queen Victoria never lost her awe of Florence Nightingale. To her, Florence was the bravest, most independent woman in the British Empire.
For Florence Nightingale, Jesus Christ was “the most important person that ever lived.” She kept a picture of Christ, crowned with thorns, in her bedroom. The call to relieve suffering was such, said Florence, that we “dishonour Christ when we do not do our best to relieve suffering, even in the meanest creature. Kindness to sick man, woman and child came in with Christ.”
In her journal, Florence recorded these thoughts: “Personal union with Jesus Christ; without this we are nothing. Father, give me this personal union. Come in, Lord Jesus, come into my heart now. There is no room. Each day more and more of this new year, 1895, and may it be a better and a happier year than any before. So help me/us God!”
Let us give thanks for the life and work of Florence Nightingale, pioneer nurse and handmaid of the Lord who has brought health and healing for countless millions.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, Rector, BSW, MDiv, DMin
St. Simon’s Church North Vancouver
Anglican Mission in the Americas (Canada)
-previously published in the North Shore News
-award-winning author of the book ‘Battle for the Soul of Canada’
p.s. In order to obtain a copy of the book ‘Battle for the Soul of Canada’, please send a $18.50 cheque to ‘Ed Hird’, #1008-555 West 28th Street, North Vancouver, BC V7N 2J7. For mailing the book to the USA, please send $20.00 USD. This can also be done by PAYPAL using the e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Be sure to list your mailing address. The Battle for the Soul of Canada e-book can be obtained for $9.99 CDN/USD.
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June 5, 2010
As told in the delightful movie “Mrs. Brown”, Queen Victoria had a great love for the Scottish Balmoral Castle. The Queen actually preferred Scotland to England. As a result, everything Scottish suddenly became fashionable. Tartans, reels, bagpipes and sporrans were considered cultured and refined where before they had been hidden away when friends from the South arrived.
Queen Victoria also had a preference for Scottish doctors, in particular Sir James Simpson of Edinburgh. Her appointment of James Simpson as one of her Majesty’s Physicians was symptomatic of Victoria’s innovative leadership style. Despite the prejudice many have today to all things ‘Victorian’, Queen Victoria helped open the doors for her people to modern science and medicine. Even as a child, she led the way as the first member of the Royal Family to be vaccinated for smallpox. Later as Victoria was to give birth to her fifth child, she turned to Sir James Simpson, the father of modern anesthetics, for help.
Until Queen Victoria’s bold move, there was a great controversy about the morality of whether women should use anesthetics in childbirth. Her leadership broke people free from superstition and fear. Her use of an anaesthetic was so controversial that the official Royal Press ‘The Lancet’ actually denied that she had accepted chloroform, but the lay press rushed to spread the news.
Dr. Petrie in Liverpool considered anesthesia a breach of medical ethics. It was the act of a coward, he wrote, to avoid pain, and if a woman insisted on the use of chloroform to alleviate her labour pains, she must be told that she was in no fit state to make decisions. ‘Are we going to allow the patient to tell us what to do?’ he enquired indignantly.
Sir James Simpson used careful statistics to overcome enormous prejudice among these medical colleagues. Many of Simpson’s fellow doctors feared that chloroform would increase the already high death rate following operation, increase the incidence of bleeding, paralysis, & pneumonia, and bring on ‘mania’ in the mother.
There were also clergymen who argued that anesthetics was somehow against the Bible. Simpson humorously responded that on the occasion of the first recorded operation –the removal of a rib – the Lord had caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, proof of his approval of anesthesia! In defending anesthesia against clerical criticism, Simpson noted that some churchmen also first spoke against optical glasses, spectacles and the telescope as ‘offsprings of man’s wicked mind’, because they changed the natural appearance of things and presented them in an untrue light. Simpson was so convinced of the rightness of anesthetics that he even called his study ‘St. Anesthesia’.
In the midst of this raging battle with the medical and ecclesiastical establishments, along came Queen Victoria who settled the controversy in one decisive act. Throughout the British Empire, her loyal subjects agreed that the sensible Queen would have never taken chloroform from Dr. Simpson if it was really dangerous or against the will of the Lord. The gift of anesthetic was Queen Victoria’s present to millions of grateful mothers around the world.
The mothers of the mid-nineteenth century were looking for a doctor who would consider them seriously as people, and not as baggage. James Simpson was a man of great compassion who could not bear to see women in pain. As a young intern, Simpson ran out in horror during a cancer operation and almost switched to studying law. ‘Can nothing be done’; he pleaded, ‘to make operations less painful?’ James Simpson was a man who respected women of all classes and considered it their due to receive the best medical attention that there was to offer. Simpson didn’t just treat the Queen as an individual; he treated all women as ‘queens’. Simpson, as a man of deep faith, knew that in Christ there was neither slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one and equally valued in the Lord (Galatians 3:28).
In 1870 a contemporary of Simpson wrote, “Simpson adopted obstetrics when it was the lowest and most ignoble of our medical arts: he has left it a science numbering amongst its professors many of the most distinguished of our modern physicians.’ The average physician of the early Victorian age was armed with a jar of sticky black leeches and an obsession for putting them to work. With the discovery of chloroform, Simpson held that ‘a new light had burst upon Surgery, and a large boon conferred on mankind.’
Simpson was a natural inventor who was always eager to experiment in new directions –the fight against puerperal fever, the invention of new types of forceps, the combating of cholera, and the invention of the vacuum suction extractor to help with childbirth problems. And he invented the uterine sound instrument by accident by dropping a straight tool on the ground and bending it!
For Simpson, faith was as natural as breathing. Family prayers were at 8:15am in the dining room. Everyone had their own Bible in their hand, and the family sat around the mahogany table. Simpson always read the Lesson, but enjoyed the children leading the prayers. After the tragic death of his fifteen-year old son Jamie, Simpson had a profound encounter with Jesus Christ. ‘I am the oldest sinner and the youngest believer in this room’ he said to a gathering of enthusiastic medical missionary students. Despite his fame for discovering chloroform, Simpson said to all: “My greatest discovery is Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour”.
For his service to Queen Victoria, Simpson became the first Scottish doctor to knighted as a baronet. In his memoirs Lord Playfair, Professor of Chemistry, called Simpson ‘…the greatest physician of his time’. A doctor in the Indian Army said in the Bombay Courier of 22 January 1848 that “the most outstanding character that he had come across in his tour of the medical centres of Europe was ‘little Simpson of Edinburgh’ who had the four ideals for the perfect physician: the brain of an Apollo, the eye of an eagle, the heart of a lion, and the hand of a lady –nothing baffles his intellect, nothing escapes his penetrating glance…” Despite all the rejection Simpson experienced, he was eventually elected President of the Edinburgh Royal College of Physicians, as a Foreign Associate of the Academy of Medicine of Paris, and given the Swedish Royal Order of St. Olaf.
The Scottish people loved him deeply. When Simpson was dying in extreme pain, he commented: ‘When I think, it is of the words ‘Jesus only’ and really that is all that is needed, is it not?’ To honour this Christ-like man, 80,000 Scots watched his funeral procession in Edinburgh.
My prayer is that each of us may treat the mothers in our lives, as Sir James Simpson treated all women, with respect and dignity.