Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The "Lady With a Lamp"

A Lady with a Lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land,
A noble type of good
Heroic womanhood.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1857

I was a clerical deputy to the 1994 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, IN, which defeated a proposal to include a commemoration of Florence Nightingale in the Church's liturgical calendar, based on objections purporting that she had doubted or denied certain articles of the Creed. Though I don't recall exactly how I voted on the resolution, I can't imagine that I would have opposed it. God knows how much the Church needs the godly examples of contemporary women such as Florence Nightingale! Florence Nightingale displayed throughout her long 90 years a remarkable and solid faith, one that was even clearly mystical, and which expressed itself in heroic acts of compassion and service to others.

Florence, named after the famous Italian city where she was born in 1820, while her wealthy British parents were on holiday, was originally Unitarian, though her family later became members of the Anglican Church. In her 30's, when tempted to become a Roman Catholic, she was talked out of it by an Anglican priest friend, Fr. Henry Manning, who himself later "swam the Tiber" and became the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster!

Described later by Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic as "elegant rather than beautiful...tall and graceful of figure, her countenance mobile and expressive, her conversation most interesting...", Florence recognized from an early age that she wished to become a nurse and pursued it unwaveringly, despite family opposition, and despite society's view of nursing as, according to Fr. John Julian, OJN, "...a highly disreputable profession in those days when nurses were considered servants and/or sluts, often given to drink and impropriety." At 17 Florence wrote: "On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called to his service." Fr. John Julian, OJN notes that "...she recognized her nursing vocation as the mystical version of a vocation to the priesthood.” (Stars In a Dark World) On her 30th birthday, in 1850, she wrote: “Today I am 30 -- the age Christ began his mission. Now no more childish things. No more love. No more marriage. No, Lord, let me think only of Thy Will, what Thou willest me to do. O Lord, Thy Will, Thy Will.” (She had been courted for some seven years by Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, but made the personal choice of living single and celibate.)

Florence Nightingale trained as a nurse at Kaiserswerth-am-Rhein in Germany, under the Sisters of Charity, and completed her training in Paris. In August, 1853, she accepted the post of superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street, London, a position she held until October, 1854. Her father had given her an annual income of £500 (roughly equivalent to $50,000 in present terms), which allowed her to live comfortably and to pursue her career.

Great Britain entered the Crimean War in 1854 in which Lord Tennyson's famed "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was only one of many fiascos. The toll of battle on human lives was astronomical: 41% when Florence Nightingale and her 38 companion nurses arrived -- 42 out of every 100 wounded dying from infection, not wounds! "...What she found...was rows of beds four miles long, filled with the injured soldiers, with filth and vermin everywhere evident, and virtually no care offered the patients...Her first reaction: 'You might as well take 1,100 of these men every year out upon Salisbury Plain, and shoot them dead.' ...She set up sanitary kitchens, bought provisions and medical supplies with her own money, organized washing for all patients, cleaned the filthy wards, trapped and removed the rats, saw to it that the drains were cleaned so sewage no longer backed up onto the hospital floors—and during the next two years she dealt with military and administrative incompetence and almost constant opposition...Florence spent most of each night walking the rows of beds with her lantern and ministering personally to those who were suffering, and so did she become the legendary “Lady with the Lamp”. Under her direction, mortality in the Scutari hospital dropped from 41% to 2%..." (Fr. John Julian, OJN, Stars In a Dark World)

Three years later, at age 37, Florence Nightingale returned to England, herself a victim of brucellosis contracted by drinking contaminated milk while in Crimea. She suffered from the effects of this most of the rest of her life, particularly from 1861-1867 when she was virtually bed-ridden with spinal pain, nervous tremors, inability to eat, and depression. Nevertheless, over the next 43 years she managed an amazing array of accomplishments. Try as she might to avoid it, Florence became something of a celebrity. She was a favorite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and was a frequent guest of theirs for luncheons and informal dinners. She raised some £50,000 to establish nursing schools at St. Thomas Hospital and Kings College Hospital. She wrote a book, Notes on Nursing: What It Is, What It Is Not, in 1859, which endured for 50 years as the standard text on nursing and is still in print. She began a book on mysticism which she never completed. Commanding five languages besides English (Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian), she worked closely with biblical scholar and translator, Benjamin Jowett. For the past 20 years Florence Nightingale's picture has appeared on the British £20 note.

Florence also had a gift for mathematics from an early age and excelled in the subject under her father's tutorship. Later, she pioneered in the visual presentation of information and statistical graphics. Among other things she used the pie chart, first developed by William Playfair in 1801. Florence is credited with developing a form of the pie chart known as the polar area diagram, or the Nightingale rose diagram, to illustrate seasonal sources of patient mortality in the military field hospital she managed. She made extensive use of her statistical abilities to present reports on the nature and magnitude of the conditions of medical care in the Crimean War to Members of Parliament and to other civil servants. In later life she made a comprehensive statistical study of sanitation in Indian rural life and was the leading figure in introducing improved medical care and public health service in India. In 1859 Florence Nightingale was elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society, and later became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.

More importantly, Florence Nightingale remained a strong and faithful woman of faith throughout her life. At one point in her long illness she wrote: “Today, O Lord, let me dedicate this crumbling old woman to thee. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” She had begun her work on mysticism thus: "Religion is not devotion, but work and suffering for the love of God. This is the true doctrine of Mystics…Where shall I find God? In myself. That’s the true Mystical Doctrine. But then I myself must be in a state for Him to come and dwell in me. That is the whole aim of the mystical life.” Even though she was bed-ridden for the last 14 years of her life, she continued to receive the Eucharist until she died in 1910.

We owe a tremendous debt, not only to Florence Nightingale, but to all those women and men who have followed her in the noble profession of nursing. My own late aunt and godmother, Florence Saul, was an outstanding R.N., still memorialized in Troy, OH in the scholarship for nursing students bearing her name.

Life-giving God, you alone have power over life and death,
over health and sickness. Give power, wisdom, and gentleness
to those who follow the lead of Florence Nightingale,
that they, bearing with them your presence, may not only heal but bless,
and shine as lanterns of hope in the darkest hours of pain and fear;
through Jesus Christ, the healer of body and soul...Amen.

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