One of the great problems for anybody studying the history of nursing in the nineteenth century is to find a way of coming to terms with the powerful and enigmatic figure of Florence Nightingale, a woman who became the stuff of which myths are made even in her own lifetime. In this chapter, however, we shall try to place her in a social context as a woman of her class and time. As we have seen, the care of the sick was already changing in many ways which were ultimately to produce the modern occupation of nursing. Florence Nightingale’s work was part of that process and undeniably made a major contribution to its outcome. But that result was a compromise between Miss Nightingale’s vision and the realities of mid-Victorian life, values and institutions; a compromise shaped by the hands of many other women and men. The ‘New Nurse’ turned out to retain a surprisingly large number of features of the old.
The difficulty of assessing the contribution of Florence Nightingale to nursing reform in the nineteenth century is that so much of the writing about her has been biographical rather than historical. This has, perhaps, been encouraged by the mass of her own papers which present vivid, if often selective, melodramatic and egotistic accounts and judgements of other people and events. Florence Nightingale’s life has taken on the function of a ‘heroine legend’ in nursing, a morality tale to inspire her successors (Whittaker and Oleson 1964). To see her, rather, as part of a social movement is not to detract from her contribution but is to acknowledge the complex relationship between individuals and their circumstances in the making of history.
Thus, some of the more breathless accounts of her early life try