Saturday, 23 January 2010

Florence, Mary and Me

In 1883 Florence Nightingale initiated a nurse training school at Charles Hospital, Ladbroke Grove, London. It was housed in a building called Nightingale House. This was after she founded her famous nursing school at St. Thomas Hospital, but there were many other schools of nursing carrying her name. This week I was at Nightingale House, the one at St Charles Hospital, teaching an Infection Control Update. As I left the building I saw a plaque commemorating Florence Nightingale opening the nursing school.

The plaque played on my mind, as I returned home. Several years ago I worked at St Charles Hospital and at the time never knew the history of Nightingale House. Now I did and it fascinated me.

By profession, I’m a nurse and for all my nursing career I’ve disliked having Florence Nightingale held up as the figurehead of nursing. I can’t deny that she made nursing a respectable job, but she didn’t make it into a profession. To begin with she was against educating nurses. I also feel that her deference to powerful men lead to the role of nurses, for so long, as “doctors’ handmaidens”. I question how much relevant she is to modern nursing, she certainly wouldn’t have approved of someone like me as a nurse.

During my nurse training, I vocally resented the image of Florence Nightingale held up before us, much to the annoyance of the nice gals in my intake. Then, after qualifying, I came across Mary Seacole. She was a contemporary of Nightingale, but from a very different background. She was Jamaican, her mother ran a boarding house for disabled soldiers and Mary carried on in the same business, she also used her experience of herbal remedies and folk medicine to treat people. Though, Nightingale rejected Mary as one the nurses she took to the Crimean War, but Mary funded herself and got to the Crimea. There she set up a cantina, were she provided food and clothing to the soldiers. She tended to the ill and wounded ones in her own right, not waiting for the instructions of the doctors there.

In her lifetime, Mary Seacole was also lauded as a hero of the Crimean War; but after her death she was soon forgotten. Her reputation was soon eclipsed by Nightingale’s with Nightingale becoming the image of nursing in Britain. But how different would it have been if Mary Seacole had become our role model?

Mary Seacole was a practitioner in her own right, she treated people with her own knowledge and skills, not waiting for a doctor’s instructions. She also took a holistic approach, not just tending to the soldier’s injuries, she also proved food and rest to the uninjured soldiers. Her approach was certainly not that of the “doctors’ handmaidens”, she might have helped to push nursing into a profession in its own right far sooner then it took us, using our skills in our own right.

These are only pipe dreams, I can’t change the past or slip into an alternative reality, but it is a nice thought.

What I do get annoyed about is how, until only recently, Mary Seacole has been completely forgotten, and is only now is beginning to be slowly remembered, while Florence Nightingale is held-up as an almost saint. The International Nurses Day is celebrated on her birthday. Yet, it wasn’t Nightingale alone who created the profession of nursing and modern nursing has moved very far beyond her narrow vision of the role. I would like to celebrate more of the people who helped create and form my profession, not just one Victorian woman.



Unknown said...

Thank you for bringing Mary to my attention. I had not heard of her. Yes, Florence is better known. I do agree with you that she would not hold up in modern days with us a nurse practitioners and nurses today. We are NOT handmaidens any more.

Unknown said...
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