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Nightingale in Scutari

In 1854 Nightingale grabbed her chances. England and France became involved in a conflict between Russia and Turkey. The English army set up camp on the shores of the Black Sea, near the Crimean peninsula. Tragedy was lurking. The English army was ill-prepared for its task. There was a lack of transportation, provisions, water, medicine, dressing material and physicians. Defective communication between officers and the outbreak of the contagious cholera made the chaos complete. Even before the English had fired a single shot, more than a thousand soldiers had died through lack of hygiene and care.

Messages from the Front (1854)

In the 19th century, it was often the case that more soldiers died of poor hygiene than of wounds inflicted in battle. The remarkable thing about the Crimean War was that, for the first time, these numbers were published on the home front. On behalf of an English newspaper, William H. Russell had travelled with the troops as a war correspondent. Through telegrams and articles, he published the desperate situation at the front. The population reacted shocked. The call for better care for the ill soldiers became louder. The issue led to fierce discussions at the House of Commons. England’s reputation was at stake. On 15 October 1854, Secretary at War Sidney Herbert sent Nightingale a letter with the urgent request to put matters in order in Scutari. As a friend of the family, he knew her great knowledge of military health care and her nursing ambitions. By that time, Nightingale had already offered her help. The story goes that the Secretary’s letter and Nightingale’s offer crossed.

The Beginning of the Myth

Nightingale was made for this mission. With her keen organisational skills, within days she gathered a group of 38 women who were willing to undertake the hazardous journey to Crimea. The group consisted of willing housewives, ward sisters from hospitals and a number of Catholic nurses with some nursing experience and hence was still rather amateurish. Trained nurses were not yet available in England. Once arrived in Scutari, the battle Nightingale and her group had to fight, really started. The military medical staff regarded them with suspicion, for it was not used to working together with so many women in a war situation. When the stream of wounded soldiers did not let up after the Battle of Balaklava, Nightingale could employ her organisational talents. The sick rooms were thoroughly cleaned, the wounds were dressed with care, nutrition was improved and the morale of the soldiers was strengthened. Grateful soldiers called Nightingale the “Lady with the Lamp” because she, with her lamp, comforted the ill at night and gave them courage.

The Saviour of Soldier’s Lives

Notwithstanding these measures, mortality was still high in especially her hospital. Only long after the War, it appeared that there was an open sewer beneath the building, and in 1854 no one yet knew how detrimental this was to health. Nightingale herself, who was still inexperienced in the field of hygiene, did not recognise the danger. This was not an issue in 1854. At least, positive messages reached England and Nightingale’s approach yielded hope and self-confidence on the home front. The English people considered Florence Nightingale the saviour of many soldiers’ lives. When Nightingale returned home in July 1856, the veneration of her person was in full swing.

Productive From the Sofa

After her return from the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale isolated herself, away from all the hubbub and publicity. The horrible experiences of the Crimean War affected her deeply. She was weakened mentally and physically and spent a lot of time on the sofa. She was depressed and suffered from painful afflictions. Regularly, the doctors feared for her life. The explanation for her illness differs from a psychological trauma such as posttraumatic stress syndrome to brucellosis, a chronic disease, a result of the Crimean haemorrhagic fever, with which she had been infected during her stay. Notwithstanding her bedridden existence, Nightingale’s was extremely productive especially after the Crimean War. She considered questions in the field of public health care, hospital building and sanitary improvements within the armed forces. She wrote a number of important books, for instance the work on the reorganisation of military and civilian hospitals, of 800 pages.