The Defiance of Florence Nightingale

Joshua Hammer:

She’s the “avenging angel,” the “ministering angel,” the “lady with the lamp”—the brave woman whose name would become synonymous with selflessness and compassion. Yet as Britain prepares to celebrate Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday on May 12—with a wreath-laying at Waterloo Place, a special version of the annual Procession of the Lamp at Westminster Abbey, a two-day conference on nursing and global health sponsored by the Florence Nightingale Foundation, and tours of her summer home in Derbyshire—scholars are debating her reputation and accomplishments.

Detractors recently have chipped away at Nightingale’s role as a caregiver, pointing out that she served as a nurse for only three years. Meanwhile, perhaps surprisingly, some British nurses themselves have suggested they are tired of working in her shadow. But researchers are calling attention to her pioneering work as a statistician and as an early advocate for the modern idea that health care is a human right. Mark Bostridge, author of the biography Florence Nightingale, attributes much of the controversy to Nightingale’s defiance of Victorian conventions. “We are very uncomfortable still with an intellectually powerful woman whose primary aim has nothing to do with men or family,” Bostridge told me. “I think misogyny has a lot to do with it.”

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