So, for those of you that don’t know, the 12th of May is quite an important day. For starters, it comes after “Twilight Zone Day” on the 11th and before “Blame Someone Else Day”, would you believe, on the 13th.
It is not only “Limerick Day” and the beginning of the Queen’s 90th Birthday celebrations, but also happens to be the birthdate of Florence Nightingale.
To most of us, in the Western World at least, Florence and her amazing impact on health care is quite well known, perhaps not as well known as the Queen, but nevertheless. We mostly understand why she is so important and why there would be a number of statues, hospitals, stained glass windows and other laudations in her honour scattered around London, Derby and the rest of the UK, including seeing her face on a £10 bank note for a few years.
Through the number of films, theatre productions, and our standard education we may know that she came to prominence while “serving as a manager of nurses trained by her during the Crimean War, where she organised the tending to wounded soldiers” and that she “gave nursing a highly favourable reputation and became an icon of Victorian culture”, especially as ‘The Lady with the Lamp‘ while making rounds to tend to wounded soldiers at night.
She has even been heralded as a pioneer in the concept of medical tourism as a result of her 1856 letters describing spas in the Ottoman Empire. She detailed the health conditions, physical descriptions, dietary information, and other vital details of patients whom she directed there due to the treatment there being significantly less expensive than in Switzerland.
Even though we mostly associate sanitary reform in the UK with Edwin Chadwick, a few of us know that Florence Nightingale was instrumental in getting the Public Health Acts of 1874 and 1875 passed that required owners of existing properties to pay for connection to mains drainage. She also combined with Edwin Chadwick to persuade Stansfeld, the minister responsible for the Public Health Bill, to devolve powers to enforce the law to Local Authorities, eliminating central control by medical technocrats.
We might even know her as a trail blazing statistician and that she was elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and later became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.
Even though we might disagree on whether she was a positive or a negative force for early feminism, we can all agree she was not insignificant in the history thereof and that “Cassandra”, the best known essay of an 829-page, three-volume work, which Nightingale had printed privately in 1860, which until recently was never published in its entirety, is regarded as a major text of English feminism.
According to more modern metrics, in 2002, Florence Nightingale was ranked #52 in the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons following a UK-wide vote.
However, what very few of us do know, is that from the age of 37 until she died at 90 years of age, she suffered from chronic depression and potential PTSD. She also spent long periods of time completely bedridden as a result of potential undiagnosed brucellosis and associated spondylitis thought to have been contracted by ingesting unpasteurised milk or undercooked meat during the Crimean War.
And then there is the question of her personal and private life. What little we know has been presented to us through the filter of a repressed and conservative male dominated heterosexual world—presenting views that we only very recently have dared to question.
“Some scholars of Nightingale’s life believe that she remained chaste for her entire life, perhaps because she felt a religious calling to her career.” Does this not perhaps sound like a suffocated interpretation of a potentially very different reality. A reality society could not speak of then. Could it be possible that her “several important and long-lasting friendships with women” were of a more significant and perhaps less chaste nature? Could Mary Clare Moore or Mary Clarke have been her life long loves or even her lovers?
Could her seemingly damning judgement of women: “I have never found one woman who has altered her life by one iota for me or my opinions,” not be seen as slightly too dramatic for a rational assessment but more likely her emotional response to a woman’s scorn?
Could the fact that she often referred to herself in the masculine, as “a man of action” and “a man of business” potentially suggest that she regarded herself on the spectrum of transgender or as “non-binary” at the very least?
Even if we will never know the truth, the prospect that any of these are possibilities exist, as well as her formidable achievements in her life and her vast legacy is what has made her such an interesting character to me. This is why I chose to pay tribute to her in my latest novel, Simulation (Simulation: The Dawn of a Lesbian Superhero).
One of the main characters in the novel is a very intelligent highly successful medical scientist, Dr Victoria Henderson, who was partly modelled on Florence and the archetype she represents.
The obvious comparisons in intellect, field of work and achievement is only the beginning.
Like Nightingale, Henderson is “a man of action” – A pragmatic, over achieving, seemingly slightly repressed, woman with a “masculine” mind, who keeps the company of men because they only engage her mentally and analytically which helps her to avoid needing to face the demons straining within.
Additionally, I also loved the imagery and symbolism embodied in the idea of “The lady with the lamp”, the person with holds the knowledge and the key to…. salvation? (substitute your own aspiration here) In fact, I found the dynamism of this theme so compelling that I allowed it to develop from a single lantern into the the formidable lamp of the lighthouse and even its extreme incarnation as a blazing fire–too much knowledge can burn?
If you would like to read my book you can get your copy here:
Simulation: The Dawn of a Lesbian Superhero (Novel)
The Lighthouse Chronicles: Book 1
Set in a dystopian future when, after a decade of war, the United Kingdom is on it’s knees, ruled by strict martial law and where any ‘deviant’ behaviour like homosexuality or lesbianism is punishable in a manner worse than death–the perpetrators are forcefully ‘reset’. Samantha Fielding, an emotionally scarred war hero, struggles to adapt to ‘normal’ life so she enlists in a top secret scientific research program. Here, not only is she pushed way beyond her physical and emotional limits in order to unleash powerful and potentially lethal dormant human abilities, she also finds herself dangerously falling for the principal scientist, Dr Victoria Henderson – risking everything.