Florence Nightingale by Cecil Woodham-Smith

Frontispiece photo of Florence Nightingale from the book

Supposedly near death from the age of about 40, Florence Nightingale worked from her bed till she was 90

Why the sudden interest in the Lady of the Lamp?

Dinner party conversation a few weeks ago revealed some intriguing facts about her, e.g. the first woman to join the Royal Statisticians Society, though disappointingly failed to confirm the urban myth that she invented the pie-chart, which I so wanted to believe. I’ve always had a soft spot for Florence Nightingale since reading the Ladybird book about her when I was little, which was probably responsible for me wanting fleetingly to be a nurse when I grew up. (My later change of heart may have been triggered by my class teacher running out of white crepe paper while making our Christmas party hats – I ended up with a bright yellow nurse’s hat instead of a white one, and I was not amused.)

Old-fashioned But Very Readable

Cover of Florence Nightingale Ladybird book

What’s not to love about Ladybird Books?

Deciding to supplement by rusty Ladybird knowledge, I bought this book secondhand after asking friends to recommend a biography of Florence Nightingale. Being quite an old book (first published 1950, and therefore possibly even older than my Ladybird book), and written by someone with the delight but archaic-sounding name of Cecil Woodham-Smith, I thought it might be a dry and old-fashioned, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it very readable. The only aspect that made it feel dated was that it refers to its subject throughout as “Miss Nightingale” rather than Florence. Sadly gone are the days of automatic respect and deference for high achievers.

To be fair, Florence Nightingale’s life was such that it would be hard to write a dull description. She was so much more than the Lady of the Lamp in the Crimea. She was also an enormously influential social reformer worldwide, having substantial input into military and civil hospital management and nursing standards throughout the British Empire and on territories where Britain was at war.

Reading about hospital conditions before she revolutionsed patient care is horrifying, and it’s a wonder that before she came along anyone lived to tell the tale.

Nurse, Heal Thyself!

She was also an intriguing, eccentric character who spent half her life as an invalid, conducting intensive and detailed research from her sickbed. She was also friend and adversary of an astonishing number of key players in Victorian society and government. Modern theories are that she may have had post-traumatic stresss disorder. Reading of her first-hand experiences in the Crimea, that would not surprise me at all.

A Remarkable Legendary Figure in Medicine

Perhaps we’ll never know the entire truth about her, but I’m glad to have added to my knowledge, and to be honest am happy to believe what I want to believe about her, despite detractors in her time and now. For me, Florence Nightingale is a legend and a landmark in medical practice, and as I’m coming up for a short spell in hospital later this month, I’m very glad to benefit from her heritage.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in finding out more about her life in detail.

I’m now keen to learn more about her from other sources, such as visiting the Florence Nightingale Museum in London and her sister’s former family home, Claydon, where she spent a great deal of time towards the end of her life.

This book appears to be out of print now, but you can still get copies in various editions via secondhand booksellers – mine came via Amazon and was not expensive.

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