Written by Sandi Toksvig

In The News

Florence Nightingale: the lady with the whatnow?

It’s International Nurses’ Day, a day of celebrating nursing staff across the world held each year on the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Sandi Toksvig sets the record straight about history’s most famous nurse – who was much more kickarse than she got credit for.

Florence Nightingale illustration

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

If the Leveson inquiry taught us anything (other than how little change most inquiries effect in the end) it’s that journalism in the modern age is not always to be trusted. Every citizen knows that there are hacks out there so keen on promoting a particular viewpoint that they sometimes overlook key elements such as ‘facts’ in favour of a more saleable story. It matters, for journalism is the ‘first draft of history’ and unless these errors are corrected no one will ever remember what actually happened. Sadly, it is not a new phenomenon.

Ask anyone about the legendary founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, and the first thing they are likely to tell you about her is that she was known as ‘The Lady with the Lamp.’ It’s a sweet story with many illustrations over the years showing Florence tending to the wounded of the Crimean War; walking amongst them in the night carrying a single lamp to light her way while they kiss her shadow. A beam of hope in an otherwise dark and dismal conflict. The only problem with the story is that it’s not entirely true.

The Crimean War, which began in 1854, like most wars had nothing to commend it. The loss of life was immense. In total 1,650,000 soldiers from Britain, France, Sardinia, Turkey and Russia fought in the conflict, of whom 900,000 died, mainly of disease.

The Times newspaper went looking for a story with at least some optimism in it and they fell upon the good works of Florence Nightingale. “She is a ‘ministering angel’…” wrote the journalist. “When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.” Thus the legend was born. But the truth is much better.

Florence was no retiring angel. She was a woman with a mission who cared only about saving as many men as possible. She was uninterested in rank. When Florence arrived with her self-trained, volunteer nurses at the Selimiye Barracks in Scutari she was appalled at the poor conditions she discovered. Men were dying in droves.

Florence immediately instituted simple hygiene practices such as hand washing and began turning the death rate from 42 per cent of the patients to 2 per cent. Nothing was going to stop her. When she was denied access to a storeroom of medicines she took a hammer and smashed the lock off. The men did not call her ‘The Lady with the Lamp’. To them she was ‘The Lady with the Hammer’, and how much better that sounds.

There is a statue of Florence at Waterloo Place in London looking benign and holding a small oil lamp in her right hand. It is wonderful that she is remembered in this way but I would so much rather see her standing there swinging a great hammer with all her might and looking absolutely enraged. A memorial to a real woman, not some fellow’s imagination.


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Written by Sandi Toksvig

Sandi currently hosts 15-1 on Channel 4 and News Quiz on Radio 4. Sandi has written over twenty books and is a columnist for Good Housekeeping.