Thanks to the distinct lack of legal help in the mid-nineteenth century, one woman has become synonymous with the history of nursing. Florence Nightingale is famously known as the Lady with the Lamp and credited with helping establish several of God’s waiting rooms, sorry, hospitals, during the dark days of the Crimean War. Dark days indeed, if you happened to be a soldier headed for one of Nightingale’s wards. The reality behind the mother of British nursing and the truth behind the legend are both somewhat more complicated. The majority of men who entered her care left in a box, stone cold dead and certainly not in need of hospital treatment ever again. So was this Nightingale in a shining apron really responsible for a medical leap in the right direction, or was she in the pay of a local undertaker?
Bad Attitudes and Bad Practices
Nightingale stands out in her generation as a woman who was not afraid to say no. Her real strength was administration and it was in this respect that she made a positive impact on the battle fields of the Crimea. While various revisionist histories have pointed out that the nurse was in fact rather lethal, what is often overlooked is the simple fact that this was not exactly her fault. The role of women in mid-Victorian society was largely to shut up and do what they were told. In Florence’s case she did the telling, to anybody who would listen and quite a lot of people who wouldn’t. Starting out with her family, who expected her to marry and go away, she bullied them into submission and eventually got her own way, training to become a nurse and putting the issue of matrimony to bed for good. Medical knowledge at the time was based on a ‘kill you or cure you’ approach and the former seemed to be the modus operandi of most of the medical establishment, from pharmacists up to and including, surgeons. Nightingale did things by the book and the book itself was pretty ropey. As far as medical negligence goes, she was not particularly negligent by the standards of her time. While many soldiers died of infections they picked up in the field hospitals run by Nightingale, this was largely due to the standards of medical practice at the time, plus some fairly terrible conditions and poor equipment.
The real killer on the battlefields was negligence on a grand scale. The army authorities believed that Russia was a hot country and sent troops to fight in the bitter Russian winter with scanty supplies and summer clothing. When freezing temperatures were finally noted, restocking the supplies was delayed and the logistics of getting the right men, in the right place at the right time, with the right equipment proved too much for most Victorian administrators. This is where Nightingale came into her own. The famous lamp was more likely used to pore over the requisition lists late into the night. As an administrator and logistics expert Nightingale was efficient to the point of obsession. While many men died under her care they didn’t die for lack of supplies, which is a lot more than could be said of the soldiers in the field. In reality, Nightingale may well have made an admirable army chief and had here strong willed nature led her in that direction the history of the Crimean War may have been a very different thing.
As the large number of medical negligence lawyers today shows, medical incompetence is not just a thing of the past. However Nightingale, on her return to England, continued to badger, harass, and otherwise make a nuisance of herself, with the medical authorities and the government. Her constant campaigns saw the beginnings of new standards of care and hygiene in hospitals becoming a priority and while as a nurse she may not have been entirely safe to let loose on a patient, as a campaigner for better medical standards, we have a lot to thank her for!
Aimee Coppock is a freelance writer who prefers hospitals from the outside; she’s fascinated by the history of medicine and surprised at the lack of medical negligence lawyers that there were in the past.