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New Light on the Lady with the Lamp

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Susan-Mary Grant looks at Florence Nightingale’s influence on medical care in the Crimea and the US Civil War.

'It is with feelings of surprise and anger,’ announced The Times on October 12th, 1854, referring to the appalling conditions of the Crimean War, ‘that the public will learn that no sufficient medical preparations have been made for the proper care of the wounded. Not only are there insufficient surgeons … not only are there no dressers and nurses,’ but what, the paper asked rhetorically, ‘will be said when it is known that there is not even linen to make bandages for the wounded?’ The Times continued its attack the following day with a critique of the ‘worn-out pensioners who were brought out as ambulance corps’. They were, the paper raged, ‘totally useless, and not only are surgeons not to be had, but there are no dressers or nurses to carry out the surgeon’s directions and to attend on the sick during intervals between his visits.’ The author of this diatribe was, not, as is commonly supposed, the famous war correspondent William Howard Russell, but The Times’ Constantinople correspondent and future editor, Thomas Chenery. However, if the origin of these dispatches was quickly forgotten, their impact was not. Credited with inspiring, in part at least, Florence Nightingale’s decision to take matters in hand as far as medical care in the Crimea was concerned, Chenery’s revelations helped effect dramatic changes for soldiers fighting on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-nineteenth century.

When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, Nightingale was approached by the Federal Government for advice on organising medical care for troops in the field. By this time she was a well-known figure on both sides of the Atlantic. As early as December 1861, an article in the widely-read American periodical the Atlantic Monthly opened the debate over the appropriate treatment of the sick and wounded soldier. Here, the experience of the British at Scutari was recognised as indispensable. Nightingale’s achievements, specifically, were regarded as crucial, in particular the stress she laid on ‘instant and silent obedience to medical and disciplinary orders.’ In the journal’s view, Nightingale’s ‘practical hard work, personal reserve, and singular administrative power’ had set new standards for the care of the wounded in wartime. ‘Through her, mainly,’ it concluded:

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