Florence Nightingale was a pioneer for Victorian women, rejecting the expectation that she would look after the home and a family. Instead, she travelled to the Crimea and changed the face of nursing to such an extent that that legacy of the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ lives on. A museum to her life and achievements is hidden away underneath St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.
Tucked unobtrusively behind St Thomas’s Hospital in London, on the very spot where Florence Nightingale founded her nursing school, is the Florence Nightingale Museum. This small but informative museum is well worth the effort, plunging the visitor back into the horrors of Victorian medicine, and reinforcing our thankfulness for those pioneers like Florence Nightingale who have enabled us to live in an age when entering hospital is no longer an automatic death warrant.
The museum is divided into three areas – first, Florence’s early life and her struggle to become a nurse, second, her role in the Crimean War and, finally, her legacy to medicine, her influence on nursing today and the continuing significance of her work.
The first area looks at her early life, the ‘gilded cage’ she was born into in 1820, being named after her birthplace in Italy where her parents were enjoying an extended honeymoon. The Nightingales were wealthy and well connected members of the upper middle class, interested in the sciences, arts and helping the poor. Upper class women had little life and no independence, with the legal status of children and belonging firmly in the home.
Her and her sister Parthenope were forced to spend all of their time together, and were thought of as being ‘suffocatingly close’. They were educated at home but unusually for the time, they were taught not only French, Latin and German but also mathematics, and she developed her love of facts, statistics and organising through this early education.
Early Victorian hospitals were dismal places – patients mostly went there to die. Beds were dirty, there was no sewerage system, wards were overcrowded and nursing was inadequate. Nurses were not trained, were often drunk and considered to be no better than prostitutes.
Despite this, Florence, having cared for her family and her servants through a flu epidemic, felt that God was calling her to nursing. Against the opposition of her family, Florence insisted on studying nursing, including time spent at Kaiserswerth in Germany, where she wrote in one of her letters that ‘she had finally learned what it is to love life’. Her mother dropped her opposition to Florence nursing and eventually she was appointed as Superintendent of a hospital for Sick Gentlewomen in Harley Street.
Florence never married, although she got close a few times, but thought that it would just be swapping one gilded cage for another, and she was reluctant to give up her nursing. She turned down the politician and poet Richard Monkton Mills in 1849, his interest in erotica and Marquis de Sade was not known about at the time, but it may well have been a lucky escape.
In the section of the museum devoted to the Crimea, the first object that attracts the attention is the lamp; not the Greek or genie one favoured by sentimental artists, but the true original Turkish lantern fanoos that she carried on her nightly rounds of the wards, and which became symbolic of her dedicated care to her patients. This room has a background of stretchers to display the artefacts, letters and photographs that explain her impact on Scutari hospital in the Crimea.
Two contrasting photographs show a ward before Florence arrived – crowded, chaotic, dark, filthy – and a ward after she had put her principles into practice – spaced beds, ordered, light and clean. The death rate fell from 42% to 2%. The first “uniform” that she provided for her nurses is there – to distinguish her nurses from wives, visitors and prostitutes, and grant them recognition and authority.
The final section concentrates on her legacy to nursing. This room has her writing case, given to her by people from villages in Derbyshire where she had grown up, to celebrate her safe return from the Crimea, and where she wrote down her ideas to improve all aspects of hospitals and the training of nurses.
Perhaps surprisingly given the lack of formal mathematical education for women, there are pie charts showing how Florence drew up and used statistical information to make her case for reform of the army after the disaster of the Crimea. She was, in fact, the first woman to be elected to the Royal Statistical Society.
She worked closely with Sidney Herbert and submitted a detailed and lengthy confidential report to the Royal Commission. She strongly believed that the death rates were due to poor nutrition, lack of sanitation, stale air and overworking of the soldiers. Originally, like all her contemporaries, she had believed that disease was caused by miasmata (infected air) but ultimately accepted Pasteur’s idea of germ theory. However, she always stressed that prevention through cleanliness was better than a cure.
She was a prolific writer, writing over 14000 letters in support of her reforming campaigns and 200 books. One display cabinet has the earliest known copy of her influential Notes on Nursing, published in 1860 to help ordinary women care for their families, and was soon translated into German, French and Italian.
The exhibition also focuses on her study of the design of hospitals. She believed that both civilian and military hospitals needed separate wings connected by corridors (pavilion style) with windows to allow natural ventilation. Largely following her advice St Thomas’ Hospital was rebuilt in pavilion style – the design is still visible in the old part of the hospital.
During the Crimean War a public fund for training professional nurses had been set up to honour Florence. With the money the Nightingale School at St Thomas’ Hospital was opened in 1860. Its reputation quickly spread and Nightingale Schools were established in Australia, America and Africa.
By 1870 she became actively involved in running the school at St. Thomas’, when she found out that the nurses were being trained in little more than obedience and humility. She swiftly introduced lectures and exams, and soon Nightingale nurses went on to lead the reform of nursing and raising its professional status.
Florence suffered from ill health in her later years, the Crimean fever wearing her down and causing her to be bed bound for quite some time. She used this time to write and she lived long enough to see her handwritten works typed up on the new invention of a typewriter, and to have her voice recorded on a phonograph; a high, slow voice that you can listen to with some awe in the museum.
In addition there is a small area with a video presentation of the work of Jamaican-born Mary Seacole.
Approaching the same problems in the Crimea with a more relaxed and alternative style than Florence Nightingale, her contribution was also massively significant both for soldiers of the time and their successors.
Her achievements are all the more remarkable because of the prejudice she faced. Originally rejected as one of the nurses to be sent to the Crimea, she made her own way there and began to treat ordinary soldiers with her traditional medicine and herbal remedies. She opened a British Hotel, near Balaclava, which was to be “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”.
A small section of the museum is also devoted to Edith Cavell, the British nurse working in Belgium, who saved soldiers from both sides in the Great War and helped 200 Allied soldiers to escape. She was arrested by the Germans and despite international pressure for mercy was executed by firing squad in October 1915.
When Florence died in 1910 aged 90, she was known around the world. This museum is a fitting tribute to her life and work.
VISITING THE FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE MUSEUM
Opening Hours Wednesday - Sunday, 10am - 5pm Ticket Prices Adults: £10.00 Concessions are available
There is no parking on site.
The site is fully accessible.