London’s Lady of the Lamp

London is my kind of town — busy, brash, but always spellbinding. There’s always something new and exciting to see and do, and the city oozes history and grandeur. Whenever I visit, I take pleasure seeking out those lesser-known historical gems scattered throughout the city.

One of my favourite is the Florence Nightingale Museum on Lambeth Palace Rd. A complex but brilliant woman, Nightingale single-handedly raised the status of nursing to that of a noble profession. She radically changed medical practices and healthcare in England and throughout the world.

Nightingale was named after the Italian city where she was born in 1820 while her wealthy parents were on a two-year honeymoon. But as she grew up, the life of the idle rich didn’t appeal to the lively, attractive, but intense teenager. She wanted to become a nurse. That caused a terrible family row since nurses in those days were for the most part uneducated, gin-swilling housemaids or prostitutes.

Went to Crimea
However, Florence stuck to her guns. She took courses at one of the few reputable nursing schools, worked in several London hospitals and eventually trained other nurses.

In854, she took a team of 38 trained nurses to Turkey. With much opposition from British Army doctors, she and her team ministered to the casualties of the Crimean War.

Indifferent British officers claimed Nightingale was asking for “preposterous luxuries” – such as soap, basins, towels, brooms and proper kitchens. She got what she wanted and helped save thousands of lives.

Nightingale became famous for her nightly tours of the military hospitals, a trait that earned her the moniker “Lady of the Lamp”. Her later reports to the British Army – in particular her recognition that more soldiers died of disease due to unsanitary conditions than in battle – brought about changes that are still followed today.

Set up school
After serving her country abroad for two years, Nightingale returned to a hero’s welcome, honoured by everyone, including Queen Victoria. The Queen even went as far as offering Britain’s most famous nurse an apartment in St. James’s Palace. But she declined. Instead, she remained in her home in central London where she received a stream of foreign dignitaries, royalty and politicians.

By 1860, she had raised sufficient funds to establish the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, just across the Thames River from the Houses of Parliament. The nurses she trained soon scattered throughout Britain and the world, establishing many more training schools based on the “Nightingale Model”. Even today, nursing graduates from St. Thomas’s Hospital are called “Nightingales”.

The museum dedicated to this amazing woman is located in St. Thomas’s Hospital, the site of her first nursing school. It’s packed with items from Nightingale’s life and times: letters, photos, drawings, newspapers, personal effects and furniture as well as Crimean War relics.

The centrepiece is the full-size re-creation of a Crimean hospital ward, depicting the famous nurse and her staff ministering to wounded soldiers.

Her later life
The museum reveals an uncompromising and sometimes crusty woman whose determination and common sense forced an about-face in attitudes to healthcare — resulting in improved sanitation, hospital standards and proper nutrition for soldiers and civilians alike.

Although she later became bedridden due to illness contracted in the Crimea, Nightingale continued to campaign to improve health standards, publishing more than 200 books, reports and pamphlets on the topic.

But she never let her fame go to her head. In 1907, just three years before her death at age 90, an aide to King Edward VII came to her bedside to inform her she would become the first woman to receive the Order of Merit.

“So kind,” sighed the Lady of the Lamp.