This is the second to last in a series of posts by Susan Hassmiller, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Senior Adviser for Nursing, that chronicle her summer vacation spent retracing Florence Nightingale’s influential career.
Scutari was a “tragedy of epic proportions of which bureaucratic muddle and sheer human incompetence played the larger part, thrown in with a measure of bad luck.”
–Mark Bostridge, from his book, Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon
The Hospital: What Florence Experienced
It is almost incongruent that a woman who wrote more than 14,000 letters and 200 books said upon arriving at Scutari Hospital, a converted army barracks, that she was without words to describe what she saw. Of course, as time caught up with her, the words flowed quite freely. Death and mutilation surrounded her in this well-known deathtrap. Her nurses slept (“in catnaps”) in cramped quarters. Men were cramped into rooms and spilled out into the long corridors as they lay on straw beds on cold stone floors. Attendants had to walk over the men who were, by Nightingale’s command, a requisite 18 inches apart. More men died than lived.
Nightingale hardly slept, took her meals by the spoonful, and spent most of her time caring for the men, overseeing the band of nurses she brought with her (some were hardworking and disciplined, while others were not), administering the overall operation of the system, fundraising, constantly devising ways to make improvements to save more men and, of course, recording everything. She recorded for herself as evidence for her improvements and to teach lessons, but also to publicize the horrors of the situation to decision makers and the public back in London. The London Times and her good friend Sidney Herbert, the Secretary at War, made good use of her reports, which led to myths that she was a spy.
No man was ever allowed to die alone. Either Nightingale or one of her nurses stood over each man with an accordion lantern (not a genie lamp) day and night, to provide comfort until his passing. Nightingale was said to insist that she be present at every operation, as brutal as it was. Chloroform was not used until the second quarter of the war, well after Nightingale arrived.
What I Experienced…
Scutari is the current home of the Turkish First Army and its administrative offices. Security is extremely tight and no pictures were allowed. The Nightingale Museum, which is visited infrequently because special permission and logistics are required to get in, is in one of the four towers of the massive fortress structure. In the long corridors to get to the tower, marble floors now glisten and windows sparkle from daily cleanings—immaculate conditions are the order of the day.
So you have to use your imagination and historical reference to place yourself in her bloody boots. I did. I saw the rooms where they would have been, and imagined how I would have to listen to the screams of grief and step over those who have died. I imagined the nurses making their constant rounds, up and down these very long corridors, doing all they humanly could. I know now that there was no such thing as a “genie’s lamp,” as is the myth in all the pictures. What the nurses carried were cotton accordion lamps, one of which I purchased at the same Grand Bazaar in town where Miss Nightingale bought hers. I did shed a few tears when I walked away with my purchase, knowing what the lamp symbolized.
I walked up the spiral staircase to Miss Nightingale’s room, where I did not have to imagine too much further. There was her desk and her silver writing utensils, including the holder for her ink (her own weapon of war). I stood by her desk and imagined her writing there, although I am not sure how much she actually got to sit there. I touched the desk nonetheless and opened its drawers… five on the left and two on the right. I touched her chair and I read the original letter, framed on the wall, that was retrieved for this museum. She provides lessons for nurses in this particular letter and admonishes those who might laugh at the “probationers,” those just starting out. She said we have all made mistakes and we should be patient and help one another. It is most important to help one another. And so she is right… she is mostly always right. Thank you, Miss Nightingale, for all your lessons. We are still listening.
The cemetery for the Crimean War heroes is very close to Scutari hospital. The land was donated by the Sultan of Constantinople, for which the British Government is still indebted. What is immediately noticeable is the lack of tombstones. When I asked, I was told that the men died so fast and disease was so rampant that it was more of a mass burial ground, out of necessity. There were some tombstones, yes, but they seemed to be for those with some rank and those British citizens, including women, who were volunteering for the cause. The guide told me that the ground I was standing on held more than 5,000 men and women in a mass grave. They gave their lives, and remain nameless. It was sad and tragic. In the middle of the cemetery was a large monument in honor of Queen Victoria, who reigned during this time, and who because of Miss Nightingale’s stories and facts was able to provide for her men much more than if she had not known what was going on.
One hundred years after Nightingale was at Scutari, Queen Elizabeth attached a new plaque to Queen Victoria’s monument. It said: To Florence Nightingale, whose work near this cemetery a century ago relieved much human suffering and laid the foundation for the nursing profession. 1854-1954.