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Åsa Moberg, Hon var ingen Florence Nightingale (She Was No Florence Nightingale)

Natur och Kultur,  2008. ISBN: 9789127114821

Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2009:1

What do we know about Florence Nightingale today? A picture of a gentle lady tending the sick is brought to mind – the lady with the lamp. The Crimean War was the first modern conflict in the sense that the press were able to get involved: the telegraph had been invented and the public could thus follow progress in newspaper reports. The suffering of the soldiers became a very relevant matter. In calling her book She Was No Florence Nightingale, Åsa Moberg destroys the image of the gentle female wiping the soldiers’ brows. Perhaps ‘The Iron Lady’ would be a more appropriate designation. Florence Nightingale’s was a most remarkable life – a life of a highly intelligent middle-class woman from a well-connected family, who spent 53 years working from her sickbed.The reader learns about her long battle to be allowed to study nursing – in England in those days not a profession for a respectable woman, being generally associated with prostitution and drunkenness. At the outbreak of the Crimean War Nightingale was working at the Middlesex Hospital during a cholera epidemic. The public was made aware of the need for nurses in the war zone through writings in The Times. On the 14th October she wrote to the Minister of War Sydney Herbert’s wife, Elizabeth, and offered to accompany some nurses to the Crimea.Thirtyeight women in all set off. Some were nurses, while others were Protestant sisters and Catholic nuns.They travelled by train to Marseilles, where Nightingale bought extensive supplies. Nursing in the army consisted mainly of surgery – amputations.There were no anaesthetics for the ordinary soldiers apart from alcohol. On arrival at Skutari the nurses were allocated an unfurnished hall with a rotting floor covered in dirt and infested with rats and lice, and no cooking facilities. Nightingale had to use money of her own and donations from readers of The Times to buy what was needed. She rented a house near the hospital and established a laundry. She bought vegetables and fruit in the local market and ensured the soldiers received citrus fruit. In the battle of Balaklava, 1,763 men were wounded and 442 killed.The hospital had to receive 510 of the wounded straightaway, with another 540 expected. Unbelievably, the beds stretched for four miles. During the winter of 1854-5 the situation was catastrophic. In January 12,000 of the British Army’s 25,000 soldiers were ill or injured, but in fact only 150 were in hospital for their battle wounds: 3000 died there from typhus, dysentery, frost-bite, malnourishment, and, during the summer, cholera. Nightingale employed a French chef from London to improve their diet. But the Army’s chief surgeon felt threatened by her popularity and wanted to send her and her nurses home. However, she was able to produce a letter from Queen Victoria supporting her work and expressing concern about ‘her beloved soldiers’. When visiting the Crimea during the second winter of the war Nightingale fell ill but insisted on staying on till the end. She arrived back in England incognito in July 1856, after having arranged for the return of all the nurses. She was ill and had a horror of fame and publicity. But a letter from Queen Victoria summoned her to Balmoral where she described to the Queen and Prince Albert the urgent needs of the military hospitals and the reforms required. Florence Nightingale knew about the need for cleanliness, good nutrition and proper care in nursing. She was also aware of the power of statistics and how they could be used for the benefit of society. After falling ill in the Crimean War she would be bedridden for the rest of her life. She spent 53 years working from her bed, directing the establishment of proper nursing education and writing a large number of books, pamphlets and letters. She was a pioneer in statistics and a notable feminist. Åsa Moberg has written a remarkable biography of Nightingale that deals with the many aspects of her impressive work, not only her nursing but also her activities as a major feminist, whose ideas changed society for the better. Her skilful way of using statistics is less widely known, but her extensive writings are now being published. Moberg also compares Nightingale’s feminist essay Cassandra with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; the latter doesn’t mention Florence Nightingale, though they were both women who wanted to improve the lot of their sex and change the world. Moberg not only finds similar ideas in both works but adds an extra dimension by comparing Nightingale’s ideas about the state of society in her age to that of our own times. How come is there still so much social misery even in the most prosperous countries? When you study Florence Nightingale’s life you wonder how she could achieve so much.What she achieved as a nurse and through her research and writings saved thousands of lives, and many of her ideas are still relevant today. One chapter of the book is devoted to nursing in Sweden and the first Swedish nurse to study in England, Emmy Rappe, and describes her difficulties and pioneering work in Uppsala.

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