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Acknowledging Nightingale’s Pervasive Influence on Medicine as We Know It

March 4, 2014

By Jacob Molyneux, senior editor

Florence Nightingale in Crimean War, from Wikipedia Commons

Florence Nightingale in Crimean War, from Wikipedia Commons

There’s a very good article about Florence Nightingale in the New York Times right now (“Florence Nightingale’s Wisdom”)—and it’s by a physician.

The author, Victoria Sweet, writes that Nightingale was the last person she wanted to know about or identify with when she was in medical school. Then she gradually began to realize Nightingale’s extraordinary influence on modern medicine as it’s now practiced. As Sweet point out,

So much of what she fought for we take for granted today — our beautiful hospitals, the honored nursing profession, data-driven research.

It’s a good piece, and though you may already know some of what it covers, it’s well worth reading. For those who want to learn more about Nightingale, let me point out a series of short posts we ran back in the summer of 2010 on this blog. In Florence’s Footsteps: Notes from a Journey, written by Susan Hassmiller, senior advisor for nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, detailed the stages of a trip she took that summer as she retraced Nightingale’s steps through England and all the way to the Crimea, all the while contemplating her legacy.

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3 comments

  1. Brent,
    Not sure most people do actually consider Florence Nightingale a saint by now, but yes, you’re certainly right that a more nuanced view that takes into account her personality, the times in which she lived and the typical moral stances for a woman of her class and beliefs, the limits of scientific knowledge at the time about the causes of disease and its spread, the often distorting role of media coverage (including the Victorian predilection for idealized and self-sacrificing female figures), not to mention the challenges even a woman of means might face in being taken seriously in a public world often dominated by men, etc., is certainly the best approach—rather than hagiography. A number of ongoing debates have highlighted a lot of these matters, as I understand it, and illuminated her contributions and limitations or failings. Thanks for weighing in!
    -Jacob

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  2. I never have seen Nightingale as the saint some make her out to be. I applaud her use of statistical analysis but most of her other ideas probably set nursing back decades. She was a publicity hound who took credit for other’s ideas. The fall in death rates in Crimea was most likely due to the introduction of a Sanitation Commission more than her leadership. Her educational view was that moral character was more important than the ability to think and have knowledge, and dismissed good nurses who didn’t meet her moral standards. Today, we would call such a person a bully.

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  3. Indeed.. Without a ‘calling’ the embedded sense of right action; a god within.. no amount of ‘telling’ ie CQI etc etc satisfies the work of a nurse. Florence Nightingale has been selected as a saint at an episcopal congregation ( St Gregory’s of Nyssa) in San Francisco– I wonder if the author has seen her image in the sanctuary–On a personal note that calling was very clear when a nurse during the 80’s90’s in San Francisco.

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