WE REPORT THE LONG OVER DUE DEATH OF
All over Eastern Europe statues of Lenin are being taken off their pedestals (1999), dismantled and hauled off to be cut up. It is in the same vein that the nursing profession must, as we enter the new millennium, start to exorcise the myth of Florence Nightingale.
Not necessarily because Florence Nightingale was a very bad person, but because the impact of her legacy or more correctly the interpretation of that legacy has held the nursing profession back too long.
The Nightingale myth had from it’s earliest days been appropriated by the nursing hierarchy and the founders of the Royal College of Nursing who colluded with them, to use it to sell any vocational, self sacrificing ideal required for the good of the service and not the good of nursing.
As a result of the Nightingale myth, the leadership of nursing in Britain for the best part of this century has stressed "vocation" and subordination to the medical profession and cast nursing as somehow non political. We cannot progress until we break from the yoke of the Nightingale myth.
We must ask ourselves as nurses why it is that the medical professional still dominates health care. Why very few nurses are in the political arena (it is only with the 1997 General Election that we have had nurses elected to parliament). And why nursing trade unionism has not made more of an impact. A consequence of these failings has been that nurses remain professionally impotent and nurses pay lags behind that of other "organised" professions in the UK and nurses pay in other western nations.
The failure of British nursing to meet its potential, I would contend, is the ever present Florence Nightingale, whose views, whether based on myths or reality, has stopped nursing from progressing into a profession in its own right.
What is clear, is that the British establishment sought from the very origins of modern nursing to sanitise nursing, and ensure that its heroine would be acceptable: a white, English, middle class, protestant women. Florence Nightingale fulfilled this role admirably, unlike Irish catholic nurses such as Joanna Bridgeman and Jamaican nurses like Mary Seacole who made an equally important contribution to nursing during the Crimea War. Neither of these has been officially credited for their efforts.
It was Joanna Bridgeman who developed the system of nursing and management that Florence Nightinglae adopted, while the efforts of the black Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole in the Crimea were cold shouldered. What is equally interesting to note is that it was probably the Quaker, Elizabeth Fry, who has greatest claim to the title founder of modern nursing with her pioneering work at St John's hospital by her Institution of Nursing Sisters, a number of years before Florence Nightingale embarked upon her endeavours. So maybe international nurse’s day should be celebrated on her birthday, the 21st May.
Once the Nightingale myth and her status as a Saint had been confirmed by the British establishment, Florence Nightingale set about turning out her robotic acolytes from the St Thomas School of Nursing from 1860 onwards, soon capturing the role of matrons in most major hospitals.
Ehrenreich & English encapsulated this well in following quote:
‘Training emphasised character, not skills. The finished product, the Nightingale nurse, was simply the ideal lady …absolved of reproductive responsibilities. To the doctor, she brought the wifely virtue of absolute obedience. To the patient, she brought the selfless devotion of a mother. To the lower level hospital employees, she brought the firm but kindly discipline of a household manager accustomed to dealing with servants’.
"The power (of matrons) was reinforced by the para-military organisation of the nursing staff and the rigid discipline imposed in the training schools. As Miss Nightingale said rather ominously "No good ever comes of anyone interfering between the head of nursing establishment and her nurses. It is fatal to discipline". The control of the matrons over her nurses was to play a crucial role in future attempts to enrol nurses in professional organisations or trade unions".
No wonder Ann Widdecombe (supported by Christine Hancock) called for the return of the Matron at last year’s Tory party conference.
Florence Nightingale supported the subordinate role of nurses to doctors, opposed registration of nurses, three year training of nurses, did not see mental health nurses as part of nursing, and had questionable success at her hospital in the Crimea, she also turned her back on the fine history of lay women healers, not to mention her opposition to women speaking in public..
Nurses are increasingly beginning to challenge the Nightingale myth. Today’s nurses, especially our UNISON nursing students are much more questioning, much more involved in campaigning and much more willing to stand up for their rights and pushing the bounderies of our professional role. This development can only be a good thing as nursing enters the new millennium.
Nurses of the world unite you have nothing to lose but your chains
By Michael Walker UNISON Nursing student Officer and Wendy Wheeler RGN RHV
Chris Hart Behind the mask
Jane Salvage the politics of Nursing
Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English Witches, Midwives & Nurses
B.Abel Smith A history of the nursing profession
Katherine Williams Sarah Gamp to Florence Nightingale - Rewriting Nursing History
It (nursing) started from a Quaker lady whose name has hitherto been almost exclusively claimed by prisoners, but she (Elizabeth Fry) must now be accepted as the founder of sick nursing BMA Journal 19 June 1897
By Michael Walker & Wendy Wheeler 1999 (Nursing Times)
see also UNISON Health Conference debate 1999