“Few men and fewer women have seen so much of the horrors of war as I have, which are the wounds and the war hospitals and the invalided men. Yet I cannot say that war seems to me an unmitigated evil. The soldier in war is a man: devoted to his duty, his comrades (whom he eagerly sacrifices his life to save) and his God.”
– Florence Nightingale, in a letter dated October 1899
On October 15, 1854, just ten days before the failed Charge of the Light Brigade, The Right Honourable Sidney Herbert, the Secretary at War, penned a letter to Florence Nightingale, inviting her to lead a team of nurses to the British Army hospital at Scutari. After explaining the need, Herbert writes, “There is but one person in England that I know of who would be capable of organizing and superintending such a scheme; and I have been several times on the point of asking you hypothetically if, supposing the attempt were made, you would undertake to direct it.”[i] The letter was a piece of a larger conversation between Herbert and Nightingale regarding the former’s desire to see the field hospital run by a competent medical practitioner and the latter’s qualifications to fulfill the request. One week later, Nightingale and a team of nurses, which she had assembled, traveled to Scutari, across the Black Sea from Balaklava, the epicenter of the Crimean War.
Nightingale, although she almost certainly could not have suspected this at the time, would go on to become the most famous Victorian nurse and would be dubbed “the heroine” of the Crimean War by twentieth-century audiences. Even today, Nightingale remains something of a legend.
Her popularity was so widespread in the post-Crimean War years that it migrated across the Atlantic, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mythologized her in his 1857 poem “Santa Filomena.” Nightingale’s legacy as “the Lady with the Lamp” is based on Longfellow’s verse: “Lo! In that house of misery / A lady with a lamp I see.”[ii] Longfellow likely adapted these lines of his poem from a popular description of Nightingale’s “midnight vigils” by the Administrator of The Times of London’s Crimea Fund, John C. MacDonald, who called the British nurse a “ministering angel” and praised her attentiveness to the sick and dying soldiers: “When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.”[iii]
Since Nightingale’s death in 1910, she has been the subject of countless biographies and scholarly articles from a range of academic disciplines, including history, sociology, medicine/nursing, and literary studies.
[i] Sidney Herbert, “Sidney Herbert’s Letter,” in The Life of Florence Nightingale by Sir Edward Tyas Cook (London: Macmillan, 1914), 153.
[ii] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Santa Filomena,” in The Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Nathan Haskell Dole (New York: T. Y. Crowell, 1901), 160.
[iii] Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale (London: Macmillan, 1913), 236-237. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.