Happy (#192) Birthday Flo!

Cover of "Notes on Nursing"
Cover of Notes on Nursing

Happy International Nurses’ Day and happy end of National Nurses (no apostrophe, I don’t know why) Week, celebrated May 6-May 12th every year since 1990, thanks to the American Nurses Association—seemingly in conjunction with Hallmark. Is it a strange coincidence that National Nurses Week, National Administrative Professional’s (or Secretary’s) Day, National Teacher Day, and National Mother’s Day are all clustered around the same weeks?

In the interest of research, I recently bought and watched Season Three of the TV show, Nurse Jackie. According to Nurse Jackie (Episode 11: Batting Practice), “(Nurses) Appreciation week is patronizing. It’s for the overworked and underpaid.” To which her co-worker, male nurse Thor chimes in, “Secretaries. Teachers. Us.” Jackie responds, “It’s bullshit and we don’t celebrate it.” And my favorite character on the show—the pink Crocs and teddy bear scrubs wearing new nurse Zoe—says, “That’s crazy! It’s our week, and if we don’t celebrate it, who will?”

Florence Nightingale, the somewhat tarnished icon of modern nursing, was born 192 years ago today. Of all that has been written about Florence Nightingale, Lyton Strachey’s is my favorite. He calls Florence’s Notes on Nursing, “… that classical compendium of the besetting sins of the sisterhood…”  Here is what Lyton Strachey writes about Florence Nightingale in his entertaining book Eminent Victorians (1918/The Albion Press/Oxford England):

“Every one knows the popular conception of Florence Nightingale. The saintly, self-sacrificing woman, the delicate maiden of high degree who threw aside the pleasures of a life of ease to succour the afflicted, the Lady with the Lamp, gliding through the horrors of the hospital at Scutari, and consecrating with the radiance of her goodness the dying soldier’s couch—the vision is familiar to all. The Miss Nightingale of fact was not as facile fancy painted her. She worked in another fashion, and towards another end; she moved under the stress of an impetus which finds no place in the popular imagination. A Demon possessed her. Now demons, whatever else they may be, are full of interest. And so it happens that in the real Miss Nightingale there was more that was interesting than in the legendary one; there was also less that was agreeable.” (pg 73)

Roxanne Nelson, in her Washington Post (4-29, 2003) article entitled “Good Night, Florence,” reports that Unison, Britain’s largest trade organization representing nurses, declared they were ditching Florence Nightingale because she “represents the negative and backwards elements of nursing.” (during their 1999 annual conference). In her article, Ms. Nelson reminds us that Miss Nightingale worked as a nurse for less than three years, including the time she managed a British hospital in Turkey during the Crimean War. After the war—and for the last fifty years of her life—she basically took to her bed with what historians now suspect was a combination of Malta Fever (brucellosis—probably from infected milk products) and depression. While an invalid, she wrote Notes of Nursing, oversaw the opening of the Nightingale Training School for nurses, and worked on hospital reform of the British military. Florence insisted that nursing was a calling and not a profession.

Those funny Brits across the pond. They know how to celebrate the history and influence of Florence Nightingale. They have the Florence Nightingale museum in London, complete with a stuffed owl—the remains of her pet owl Athena—and a Turkish lantern like the one used during the Crimean War. In their online store you can buy a teddy bear dressed as a nurse and holding a Turkish lantern, or a resin bust of the Iron Maiden, or a hot pink lapel pin with the interesting statement, “Nursing is an art.”

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