I started out this blog to draw attention to May 6-12 being National Nurses Week, and as I wrote a commemoration to my beloved profession it made me think of Florence Nightingale, the Englsh woman who in the mid-1800′s trained in London as a nurse and did so against her wealthy parents’ wishes: Nurses back then were considered to be either drunks, prostitutes, or both. Florence became known as “the Lady with the lamp” for her relentless efforts to obtain better nursing care and improve hygiene conditions for the wounded English soldiers fighting in the 1854-1856 Crimean War; 3,000 men died of their wounds during the war, but 17,000 died of infection. When I see what medical hygiene practice changes she made, I can see the first nursing research of “Evidence Based Practice”, which is today’s nursing standards of care.
At a time when women did not nurse soldiers, Miss Nightingale initiated a nursing program and then took three dozen women with her to Crimea where she saw the terrible conditions of the wounded men and and began to change the filthy state of the make-shift British-run hospitals. Her ethical practice, hygiene changes and diligent pursuasion with the doctors of that time eventually brought professionalism and respect to nursing. Now, 150 years later, national polls note that nurses are among the most respected and trusted professionals in our current time.
The week of May 6-12 is designated to celebrate the nursing profession: National Student Nurses Day on May 8th, and (world-wide) International Nurses Day on May 12, which purposely coinsides with Florence Nightingale’s birthday. However, as I googled the Florence Nightingale Pledge and her personal history, I came across the name of another strong advocate for the soldiers, and, before the war, nursing victims of cholera and yellow fever- Mrs. Mary Seacole, a Jamaican nurse and “doctoress” who was a contemporary of Miss Nightingale. However, she was refused permission by the London War Office and other military offices to volunteer in service to her own Jamaican-born soldiers fighting alongside the English troups. In her memoir she cited racism and Victorian attitudes. Undaunted, Mrs. Seacole went to Turkey at her own expense, setting up a boarding house for both Jamaican and English wounded soldiers, and even going to the Crimean front lines to nurse the fallen. Eventually she volunteered in evenings with Nightingale’s nurses, although Florence had been among those in London who had first refused her offer. Seacole became as well-known as Nightingale, but in a different capacity; she was a hands-on nurse, while Florence’s focus was as an organizer of nursing services and with the monetary means to do anything within her power. The grateful soldiers called Mary “the black Nightingale” and recognized her cheerful yellow dress and blue bonnet with red ribbons. Mary’s brilliant flame as the first advanced nurse practioner was brief, while the wealthy and well-appointed Florence went on to establish the first Training School for Nurses and was hailed over many years for her accomplishments in raising the standards of nursing practice. It was 100 years later, in the 1970′s, that Mrs. Seacole’s life work became a symbol for Black nurses, civil rights, and the women’s liberation movement.
I confess that during my student nursing days I don’t remember hearing of Mary Seacole; it was Florence Nightingale all the way. I am grateful to learn of her and to have been further enlightened of both these influential women as I began this May tribute to Nurses Week: the two leaders would be proud to have been the forefront of the educational advancements, specialty areas, and opportunities that nursing encompasses today. Congratulations to all the Registered Nurses, Liscensed Practical Nurses, and Certified Nursing Assistants devoting their education, skills, and compassion to those who receive their care.