Florence Nightingale's Nursing Practice

By MacQueen, Joyce Schroeder | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Florence Nightingale's Nursing Practice


MacQueen, Joyce Schroeder, Nursing History Review


Why is the woman who is credited as the founder of modern nursing considered by many scholars not to have actually nursed after her return from the Crimea? This article examines the ways Florence Nightingale's nursing has been deprecated or ignored in the literature and tries to redress this failure by uncovering Nightingale's nursing practice in the 187Os, 188Os, and into the 189Os. I examine her nursing as provided to Holloway villagers, cottagers on the Lea Hurst property, employees at Lea Hurst and claydon, and members of her extended family. I also argue that her concern for the health of the Lea Hurst/Holloway people and her beliefs about nursing caused her to initiate reform of nursing at the Buxton Hospital, where her patients were admitted. The situation in Buxton in 1878 and 1879 provides an interesting example of Nightingale's reform modus operandi.

Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy, on May 12, 1820, while her parents were on an extended honeymoon. Her sister, Parthenope, had been born in Naples a year earlier. Obviously, her parents, Frances and William Edward Nightingale (known in the literature as Fanny and W.E.N.), were wealthy. When the Nightingales returned to England, they settled in Derbyshire on the beautiful property W.E.N. had inherited outside Holloway village. Compared to estates such as nearby Chatsworth, Lea Hurst was modest, and so it eventually became only their summer home. The rest of the year they lived in the much grander Embley Park in Hampshire or in London during the appropriate season. Lea Hurst, however, was Florence Nightingale's favorite, and she developed relationships with the estate's cottagers and villagers that continued throughout her life.

Nightingale was educated by her father, who had studied at Cambridge. She was fluent in seven languages and had a bent for mathematics and statistics. Very early in her life, she realized she could not abide the boredom of the role accorded to wealthy women. As she struggled with finding her own place in life, she came to feel that God was calling her to a career in nursing. Nightingale was thirty-one before her family reluctantly assented to her training to be a nurse because British nurses were seen as unsavory and British hospitals as unfit for ladies. In 1851, she went to Germany to the deaconess institute in Kaiserswerth, where she trained for three months. She worked for a year as head of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen on Harley Street in London. In keeping with nineteenth-century practice for middle-class women, Nightingale was never remunerated for her work.

Then came the Crimean War of 1854-56 and Nightingale's claim to fame. Her nursing of the soldiers in the war made her a legend before she arrived back in England, exhausted from the incessant work and debilitated from the aftermath of a fever. She was, in varying degrees, unwell for the rest of her life. All her work was carried out within and despite the limitations of her physical condition. The Crimean War was a pivotal point in her life. It set her on the world stage and gave her long-term meaningful work. She worked at reforming the military medical system and its education. The Nightingale Fund, established to honor her work in the Crimea, provided the means and stimulus to develop a program for training nurses. In addition, she worked on sanitation in India, hospital statistical records, public health, and community nursing. These projects resonated worldwide and still command the limelight in the Nightingale literature, but they have overshadowed the more private sphere of action with the villagers around Lea Hurst and with her family.

Nightingale's nursing is often overlooked, not only because of the smaller private sphere of action but also because many researchers consider her work as a nurse insignificant. RB. Smith, for example, dismisses her nursing of the cottagers around Lea Hurst as "her impulsive ventures into local village nursing," despite the extensive correspondence with Dr. …

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