18 February 2014

Had Florence Nightingale ever been a nurse, pre-Crimea?

As I noted in an earlier post, William and Frances Nightingale, both from committed Unitarian famil­ies, married in 1818 and went on a long European tour. Their daughters Frances Parthenope and Florence were born in 1819 and 1820 respectively, while the parents were still travelling around on the Continent. Eventually the completed family returned to England in 1821 and settled down in William's inherited properties in Derbyshire. Here was an active lead smelter which William own­ed and manag­ed. This was a very wealthy fam­ily!

Unitarians believed that social evils were humanly-created, not God-inflicted, and th­e­r­e­fore could be rem­ed­ied by human ef­f­orts. In early C19th, Unit­arians were closely iden­t­ified with the campaign for soc­ial and pol­i­tical ref­orm i.e universal suff­r­age and par­liam­entary reform. The scholarly William ed­uc­ated his two daughters himself, teaching them It­al­ian, La­t­in, Greek, history and especially maths.

young Florence
sketched by her sister Parthenope

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) became increasingly frustrated at the kind of life wealthy young women had to lead. God was cal­l­ing her to His serv­ice, but God had not made it clear how she was to serve Him. In fact there were few chances for upper class girls to do much of anyth­ing, godly or otherwise. Florence wanted to be useful, but had no idea what a Prot­estant wo­man might do. Nursing was re­g­arded a menial employment not requiring any qualifications, suitable only for prostitutes and female al­co­hol­ics.

Fortunately in 1846 she met Earl Shaftes­bury, famous pol­itician and reform­er, who told Florence ab­out government reports called Blue Books. She became a self-taught auth­o­rity on hospitals and sanit­at­ion, although she had no experience. And another stroke of good luck occurred when she met and befriended Sidney Herbert, Secretary of War.

So she certainly had great contacts, but I was in some doubt about her practical nursing experience. While on a Nile trip in 1850, Florence dab­­bled in nur­sing training in Alex­an­dria. She did not learn much nurs­ing, but she DID learn the value of women’s dis­cipline and organ­is­at­ion.

In August-October 1851 Flor­en­ce gained some exper­ience as a trainee nurse in the Kai­s­er­swerth In­stit­ute of Lutheran Deac­on­esses in Dus­sel­dorf, where she was a probationer. During her stay at spartan Kaiser­werth, alr­ea­dy in her 30s, Florence had to fend for herself with­out any staff to help her out. Her tr­­ain­ing at Kai­s­erwer­th may have been brief, but: a] she discovered that Protestant women COULD serve and b] it was the only contact with hands-on nursing she had ever had. And she passed an exam.

Finally a more confidence Florence Nightingale then sp­ent some years having a look at hospitals in London, Edinburgh, Dub­lin and Par­is.

Est­ablishment for In­valid Gentle­wom­en, 1 Upper Harley St London.
Florence was superintendent from 1853-1854

Despite her mother and sister’s hysterical opposition, Florence went into residence in her first proper job from August 1853 until August 1854. She was the su­p­­erintendent of a rundown Est­ablishment for In­valid Gentle­wom­en, 1 Upper Harley St London. The new superintendent could not accept the conditions in the home and immed­iat­ely set out to des­ign a fac­il­ity with many innov­at­ions. The board of governors did as she bid! Florence found she could utt­erly dominate people, reg­ar­dless of whether their opinions were val­uable or not. Plus she had cle­ver insight into serv­ice needs, enab­ling her to be­come a succes­s­ful ref­or­mer, if not a bedside nurse.


Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, is important to us for two reasons. Firstly 2nd Baronet Sir Harry Verney marr­ied Parthenope Nighting­ale, Florence's sister, in June 1858. Since Florence Night­ing­ale remained unmarried all her life, Lady Verney allowed her sist­er to move in whenever she wanted, spend­ing many happy years at Claydon House. Verney was also happy with the arrangement - so great was her brother-in-law's regard for Florence, and so devoted was he to her causes, that he was known in Parliament as her major political supporter.

Secondly Claydon has always boasted a huge archive of family papers, dating back to the medieval centuries. In 1970, a later Harry Verney found all of Florence’s handwritten reports to the Governors of her Nursing Home in Upper Harley St London. The four detailed quarterly reports, dated 1853 and 1854, were a goldmine of information.

Kai­s­er­swerth In­stit­ute of Lutheran Deac­on­esses in Dus­sel­dorf
Opened by Lutheran pastor Theodor Fliedner in 1836.
Florence worked there for 3 months in 1851

There were two constant challenges for Superintendent Nightingale. One was to keep expenditure on patients down to an irreducible minimum. Each egg and potato was costed, as was every old sheet repaired. When the old carpets could no longer sustain human life, she asked the governors to bring bits of used carpet in from their own homes. Florence proudly reported that no needlewoman or night-nurse had been in the house, reducing the staff to three day nurses and a cook.

The second task was to define who would best be served by the Nursing Home. She wrote "A hospital is good for the seriously ill alone. Otherwise it becomes a lodging house where the nervous become more nervous, the foolish more foolish, the idle and selfish more so. The two essential elements are: a want of occupation and directing the attention to bodily health. The family tie is so strong as to induce the best families to keep their sick mothers at home. If nothing occupies a woman more than her dinner and her mucous mem­brane, these will become her sole object – to breakfast in bed and be pitied her sole solace. Unmitigated harm is done in such cases. What is to be done to save such patients from being spoiled?"

In August 1854, Florence wrote her 12 monthly report for the governors of the Est­ablishment for In­valid Gentle­wom­en. Then she suddenly resigned.

Look at the timing - a distant war seemed to offer just the challenge that Florence was crav­ing. Tur­key declar­ed war on Russia and in September 1854, the Crimean War was launched. Was the holiday job in Alex­an­dria and the 3 month’s work experience in Kai­s­er­swerth In­stit­ution of Protestant Deac­on­esses enough training for a nurse going out to the Crimea? We will never know, but we do know a great deal about the 12 months that she spent as su­p­­erint­end­ent of the London Est­ablishment for In­valid Gentle­wom­en.

Florence wrote many letters, reports, recommendations and essays after Crimea, but I could not find much from the pre-Crimea years. So I warmly recommend the booklet Florence Nightingale at Harley Street: her reports to the Governors of her Nursing Home 1853-4, published by JM Dent and Sons in London, 1970.


Hermes said...

filled in some woeful gaps in my brain, thanks so much

Student of History said...

Have you been to the Florence Nightingale Museum in London? What did you think of it?

Hels said...


it is a great topic *nod*. Whenever I examine Florence Nightingale's contribution to health care in the 19th century, people are still locating new evidence. The study of history never stands still.

Hels said...


if you haven't visited in the last few years, go again now - the museum renovation was very well done. Naturally the majority of the exhibition deals with Florence's time in Crimea (1854-5) and after, but they do investigate her privileged childhood and her struggle against her mother's dreams for her.

People often believe that Nightingale's most important contribution came during the Crimean War, but I disagree. She lived a long and very productive life back at home, after the war.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Sometimes when people follow unusual career paths, it is because of necessity, but you report that Nightingale worked despite her family's objections.

Florence Nightingale's dedication ties in with a recent article about new research which indicates that in cases of altruism, the brains primary "rewards center" is shut down. Obviously, some reward is felt for altruistic work, but I had never thought there might be a biological distinction or origin.

Hels said...


William Nightingale, who died in 1874, was a wealthy estate owner who looked after his daughters' finances brilliantly. Florence's mother and the two girls only had to marry well and lead active social and religious lives.

So why did Florence have SUCH a strong calling from God to serve Him in a career? Why did she not want to spend her energy on a husband and children, instead of a career?

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels,
This was a fascinating filling in of the gaps for us in Florence Nightingale 's nursing career.

We absolutely agree with the statement that hospitals are only best for the seriously ill and that all they serve to do for others is to increase the negative aspects of their conditions. It is so sad when hospitals these days seem to be a repository for many who have no alternative means of being cared for. We are certain that F N would definitely have had something to say about that.

Thank you for your kind comment on our return blogpost. We do indeed have images from Weimar and Dresden and shall hope to include them in future posts. Although we found Weimar to be rather dull and parochial, its history is fascinating as We are sure you know.

We have missed you.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

There are many important historical reasons to study/visit Weimar, but for me it is because Bauhaus started there. My beloved Gropius was in the city from 1919 on, bringing in the finest art and design teachers from across Europe.

There is also an important conection between Florence N and Germany. The reason she went to the Kaiserwerth Institute in Dusseldorf was because it was the only professional Protestant nursing service that she could find in the world. A very professional nursing career for Protestant women finally seemed possible.

Candy said...

From one F N aficionado to another, greetings!

I found your blog and am so pleased you are also singing the praises of FN. Do check out my video blogs as F N (coming next month) and the video clips of my F N characterization.

Where are you in Australia? I'm in the San Francisco bay area.

Kind regards,

Hels said...


delighted! I hope your video blog project goes very well. Where will I find it next month?