From the Shadows of the Lady with the Lamp; for Florence Nightingale He Was the Man Who Saved the British Army. Yet Only Now Can the Tireless Scot Emerge

Article excerpt

Byline: Jim McBeth

THE woman in black shone her lamp into a darkness that might have been mistaken for hell. As Dr John Sutherland stepped into the shaft of light, the stench struck him like a blow to the face. He was still reeling when he heard the moans of the soldiers dying from wounds and disease. They were the victims of a war already infamous for its unnecessary loss of life and the military incompetence of generals who months earlier were responsible for the glorious insanity that was the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Sutherland, one of the most eminent physicians of his era, had arrived that day in the Crimea from Scotland. With his hand clamped over his nose and mouth to dispel the smell, he turned to the woman and said: 'We really must do something about this, Miss Nightingale.'

Florence Nightingale, who might have been beautiful but for the severity of her expression, snuffed out the lamp that would make her famous and declared: 'Get on with it, then.' In the days and years ahead, the Edinburgh doctor and the Englishwoman who invented modern nursing would save the British Army, not only in the Crimea but in all of the wars Britain would fight in the future.

But while the 'Lady with the Lamp' was immortalised, hailed as the heroine of the three-year Crimean War between Imperial Russia and the allied armies of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire, her greatest ally would be lost in her shadow.

Now Sutherland's reputation as a hugely influential if hitherto unrecognised public health surgeon is being re-established by curators of a new Florence Nightingale Museum in London. For the first time, documents and exhibits will focus on the Scot responsible for ending the insanitary conditions which claimed the lives of more Victorian soldiers than the battles they fought.

Museum director Caroline Worthington says: 'Florence became the most famous nurse in the world. Sutherland became the classic unsung hero. He did the work and she was the front-woman. His contribution was immense and we have tried to bring that out.'

When Sutherland arrived in March, 1855, at the military hospital at Scutari on the Asian side of the Bosphorus near Istanbul, the death rate from disease among British soldiers was 42 per 1,000. Within three months, the sanitarian who had been sent to the war on the orders of the Prime Minister had reduced it to two per 1,000.

IT was a stunning success he would emulate in the Army at home and as far afield as India over the next 30 years - a period during which he would also mentor Miss Nightingale in the work of reforming nursing practices and, therefore, the health of the nation.

When he died in 1891 at the age of 83, she wrote to The Times, declaring he was responsible for 'saving the British Army' and adding: 'I was his pupil both in sanitary administration and practice and I am anxious for my master's fame.'

Worthington says: 'Florence lent heavily on him and she regarded him highly. Her fame as the "Lady with the Lamp" was based on only two years of her life but she would return to Britain to spend 50 years campaigning for public health and laying the foundation of modern nursing - the thread of which reaches to the present. Sutherland was a major part of that.'

Historian Sue Goldie adds: 'Sutherland and she became lifelong friends. She was, she said, "perpetually irritated" by him, but she depended on him a great deal. He stood up for her and he was her confidential adviser for 30 years.'

It seems the doctor and the heroine of the Crimean War of 1853-56 enjoyed a relationship akin to squabbling siblings or an old but much devoted married couple. There was, however, no impropriety.

'Florence was as much friends with the doctor's wife as she was with him,' adds Worthington. The pair corresponded almost daily for three decades and their letters, which are in the British Library, run to eight volumes. …