Well behaved women, chapter 23

This week’s guest of honor seems appropriate in light of the military actions taking up headline space over the past few days.  Today we take a few minutes to remember and discuss the historic achievements and contributions of a well behaved woman, a pioneer in modern field medicine and medicine in general: Florence Nightingale.

It is widely assumed that Miss Nightingale’s story is as much legend as fact, but she made indelible contributions to the way battlefield injuries are treated and in the process solidly established a role for women in both war and medicine.  She made a name for herself during the Crimean War, which took place shortly before the American Civil War in that mortifying period in time when the technology of war was beginning to sprint ahead of both battle tactics and medicine.  Wounded soldiers and hospital patients alike typically died of infections and the conditions in both field infirmaries and actual hospitals were horrific.  Essentially, the only treatment available for many injuries was to crudely saw off the limb and cauterize it before gangrene set in, and you basically went to the hospital so you could get out of the way and wait to die.  Nursing was not a thing and often the less-grievously-wounded or ambulatory ill spent more time tending to the severely hurt than any kind of trained staff.  Miss Nightingale was an important part of changing that, and worked to establish rules and protocols to prevent the spread of germs (which were still poorly understood) and provide for actual nursing staff to tend to patients.  She inspired the foundations of modern nursing in both Britain and the United States and advised the Union side in the Civil War on field medicine practices.  Of particular note was her compassion and dedication towards wounded soldiers–her legend tells that long after dark when all the infirmary staff had retired for the evening, she was the “Lady with the Lamp” tending to the needs of the patients and giving them strength and hope largely just by being there.

Also very interesting was Florence Nightingale’s opinion of women in general, believing them to be less capable than men and “craving sympathy” (i.e. demanding attention).  She criticized the nascent women’s movement for bemoaning the lack of employment for women while positions in the very field she blazed a path for (which were in high demand at the time) remained perpetually unfilled.  Miss Nightingale obviously had a lot of success at persuading men through her efforts but lamented that she had never once met a woman who had been persuaded or changed her life in the slightest by her work or arguments.  Somehow I doubt Florence Nightingale would have been a promoter of the wage gap myth.

So in a world made better by the contributions of a woman who did something about a (real, not imagined) problem rather than whine about it, and the supposed “patriarchy” backed her up against the resistance of old-guard medical practitioners while the “sisterhood” of women blithely ignored her, we salute you, Florence Nightingale.  You made history to be proud of.

Next week, another guest who we would just as soon forget.


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