History proves that celebrity status invites both acclaim and rebuff, especially in the press, which markets stories to survive. As they say, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
In the past few months, two articles have surfaced that claim Nightingale was a a racist and a person who, as a colonialist, sought to foist her Christianity on conquered peoples. If she could see this, I think she would sigh and add them to her list of those she called her “detractors.” In today’s parlance, there are some who would read those articles and assume they told the truth because the authors were “academics.” They would erase the Nightingale legacy from the annals of history and turn away from the truth of her accomplishments which benefitted all people—-especially women. As a Nightingale scholar and historian, I say, nothing could be further from the truth.
Whenever we look back into history to und
erstand a culture, it is dangerous to judge people with the modern lens. Nightingale lived during the years when Britain’s reach spanned several continents ‘from sun to sun.’ As a bonafide, professional statistician and champion of public health and sanitation, she was an advisor to British leaders who served in various countries with the idea of benefitting the people by elevating their standard of living. Such a desire happened because the peoples in much of the world at this time were living in such poverty and isolation that public health was in an abysmal state. Ask any modern healthcare team what they see when they journey on medical missions to places that live in bronze-age cultures; there’s a good reason to improve quality of life by providing health education lessons, modern medicines and surgeries, to teach literacy, and even to give hope in a God who loves us.
Now, take that information and try to understand that when Nightingale gathered data from reports from ‘the field’ in several British colonies, she was interested in improving health conditions. She knew that sanitation and p
ublic health are inexorably linked. Eradicating malnutrition that causes sickness and deformities, improving sanitation, and sharing the benefit of reading and writing would open the world to those living—- literally and figuratively—- in darkness.
Nightingale was a Christian, and true to that faith, saw all persons as created equally by God and therefore deserving of care. She pushed back against racism anywhere and in any way she found it. There was no quid-pro-quo in her agenda. She NEVER foisted her beliefs on anyone, only shared her opinions. She felt it her duty to provide care and comfort to all who crossed her path or asked for her advice. Indeed, that accounts for many of the > 15,000 letters that remain written in her hand.
For those who don’t know, Miss Nightingale was arguably one of the most influential women of the past 200 years. She loved to learn and study in a time when women were expected to learn very little, by today’s standards. Since, in
the Victorian era, women were denied the right to enroll in university, inherit land, or have a bank account, this was unusual. Women of that day were expected to marry and run a house —- noble work, of course—- but that is the only sort of work a decent woman was allowed to do. If the family needed money, a woman could become a nanny, a wet-nurse, or a nun. Those were the only respectable vocations.
Thanks to her parent’s progressive ideas, social position, and wealth, Nightingale was allowed tutors and studied at home. The result? Aside from becoming the icon of the nursing profession and creating the first professional
School of Nursing in Britain (St Thomas’ School of Nursing and Midwifery still exists), she was the first woman professional statistician, wrote 200 books* (including the first feminist novel), spoke 6 languages, and even helped translate Plato from the Greek.
Unlike many with celebrity status, she spent little money for herself: no lavish houses, designer clothing, nor expensive jewels. She lived quite simply, with basic needs of a person who, after she returned from the Crimean conflict, managed best as she could with an incurable (at that time) illness. She shunned public attention and lived as a semi-invalid the last 50 years of her life, meanwhile communicating with others from her London apartment.
Nightingale used her platform to improve public health conditions, further education, and assist the status of women so as to have safe childbirth and nutritious food. She became the poster-child of the feminist movement on several continents, in her own, non-violent, manner, by encouraging other famous people of the time to advocate for better laws and policies to enable women to earn an honest living.
Solid researchers will do the due diligence of understanding more than m
erely the who, what, and where, questions that history demands. Ask a social scientist what we can learn by studying remnants of the past: We cannot assume to know everything about the motives when we approach historical documents unless we ask the why and how questions, also. That would include the etymology of certain words —-what they meant 150 years ago compared to the evolution into what the words might mean now.