Thoroughgoing biography of the Englishwoman whose service during the Crimean War and subsequent writings revolutionized the disciplines of nursing and public health.
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) is a legendary name whose historical significance remains shrouded in myth. Bostridge (co-author, Vera Brittain, 1995) does an admirable job of demythologizing the “lady with the lamp,” so called after an iconic depiction of her administering to soldiers appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1855. The biography’s first section concerns Nightingale’s intense frustration with the stifling dictates of upper-middle-class life. Educated at home by progressive, well-connected parents, she grew up with an elder sister at the family estate in Derbyshire, longing always to embrace an occupation that would enable her to minister to the sick and the poor: nursing. But nurses at the time were basically untrained domestic servants, and her family used emotional blackmail to dissuade Nightingale from a profession deemed unsuitable for a lady of her class. She was nearly 30 when she finally managed to undergo rudimentary nursing training in Germany, 33 when she became superintendent of London’s Upper Harley Street Establishment for Gentlewomen During Illness. Horrified by eyewitness accounts from the Crimean War of ghastly conditions, neglect and mismanagement of the wounded, Nightingale in 1854 used her connections to help organize an expedition of nurses to the Scutari Hospital in Istanbul. The success of this operation jump-started her commitment to the reform of sanitary conditions in the British army (especially in India), hospitals and workhouses. She used her prestige to raise money to found a Nightingale Training School for nurses at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, in 1860. She also wrote widely; books such as Notes on Nursing and the novella Cassandra are neglected documents of mid-19th-century feminism. Reminding readers that much of Nightingale’s life was spent as an invalid, Bostridge underscores the significance of her public-health accomplishments. He considers the sentimental appeal of Nightingale’s legend, while trying not to be “beguiled by her heady sense of the dramatic.”
Deeply informative—Bostridge probes reverently but with confidence.