Historical Notes; The wisdom of Florence Nightingale
Friday 28 August 1998
The soldiers were sent to Nightingale's hospital at Scutari in a dreadful state: starving, scorbutic, and sometimes with their extremities dropping off from frostbite. They were not fatally ill, but their symptoms distracted attention from the typhoid and dysentery which escalated in the hospitals and killed 10 per cent of the Army in one single month. The aristocratic officers treated the common soldier as "the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink", but Nightingale practically worshipped them and refused to treat the officers, while imploring Queen Victoria to allow the men to send their pay home to their families instead of letting them use it to drink themselves to death.
Following the war Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister and an old family friend, manoeuvred Nightingale into leading a public inquiry into the mistreatment of the common soldier. Palmerston wanted to stop Queen Victoria interfering in military affairs and saw Nightingale as a more democratic "Mother of the Army". Her search to assign blame for the many deaths became obsessive, especially when she discovered statistics showing that the death rate had varied dramatically between hospitals; her own hospital at Scutari was at least twice as bad as any other. She worked dispassionately through a list of suspects including the Army officers, the doctors, and the politicians until finally she concluded that it must have been her own fault because she had failed to notify the Army 300 miles away of how many soldiers were dying in her hospital. The Army had thought the men were convalescing on the beaches, while in reality they were going into a mass grave.
Her discovery very nearly killed her. Not only had she "killed" the dying soldiers who had kissed her shadow, she felt she had betrayed her nurses from whom she had demanded total obedience. They had plotted together to steal food for the dying men and prolong their lives for a few days, and when their schemes failed the nurses were so distressed that the dying patients had to comfort them. Memories like these tortured Nightingale. Still only 37, she abandoned her nursing career and took to her bed for 11 years. She remained a reclusive invalid until she died, working 16 hours a day to save the millions of lives in England that would be needed to pay off her imaginary debt.
But the public, awed by her dreadful experience during the war and her sense of duty, trusted her completely. To destroy this hated reputation as a ministering angel, she leaked copies of a secret government report to her many admirers which included the statistics showing how her hospital at Scutari had killed patients rather than curing them. Surviving leaked copies of this report are now the only source of this data; which has been ignored since her death. The Government hushed up her findings and the public enquiry she led was a sham. And as recently as 1974 the Director- General of the Army Medical Department claimed that hospital conditions had nothing to do with the soldier's deaths!
Hugh Small is the author of `Florence Nightingale: avenging angel', to be published next month (Constable, pounds 18.99)
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre