Exhibitions Update: Notes on Nursing

Florence Nightingale, (12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910) was a celebrated English nurse, writer and statistician. She came to prominence for her pioneering work in nursing during the Crimean War, where she tended to wounded soldiers. She was dubbed "The Lady with the Lamp" after her habit of making rounds at night.

Florence Nightingale, (12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910) was a celebrated English nurse, writer and statistician. She came to prominence for her pioneering work in nursing during the Crimean War, where she tended to wounded soldiers. She was dubbed “The Lady with the Lamp” after her habit of making rounds at night.

I, like many of my fellow undergraduate students, am attending Boston College in hopes of a career in medicine. Unlike the rest of my premedical peers, though, I am a book conservation assistant to Barbara Adams Hebard at the Burns Library Conservation Lab. Recently, in assisting with exhibit supports and set-up of the Notes on Nursing exhibit here at Burns, original letters written by none other than the famed Florence Nightingale fell into my gently-maneuvering hands. Florence Nightingale accomplished incredible nursing feats, such as decreasing the death rate in a Turkish hospital from 42% to 2% in less than a few months during the Crimean War. As I prepared the black acid-free board and mylar corners to support the letter while on exhibit, I was fascinated by what the nurse had transcribed. These personal primary documents got me thinking not only of the history of medicine but also of the medical world today. My peers and I can only hope to advance the mission of this amazing nurse.

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Mrs. Lewis, Josephine A. Dolan Collection of Nursing History, MS1988-04, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Mrs. Lewis, Box 1, Folder 1, Josephine A. Dolan Collection of Nursing History, MS.1988.004, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

While struggling through organic chemistry and trying to decide between the three- or four-year plans, I think many students may lose the passion they once had for medicine. Ask yourself, why do I want to be a doctor or a nurse? Is it to secure a future for my family or hopefully discover a cure for a disease? For me, more than anything else, it is because I want to improve others’ lives in any way that I can. This is what struck me about Florence Nightingale’s letters: not only was she an incredible nurse, but she was also so compassionate. “My dear Mrs. Lewis,” she writes in 1855 from her post in Turkey during the Crimean War, “I am happy to inform you” that two of Mrs. Lewis’ dear friends had gone home, and will “be seen again by their poor wives.” Nightingale shows grief over a man who recently died of dysentery as well, exclaiming, “Alas! Lowden is dead…” in her letter to Mrs. Lewis.  In an 1881 letter, also exhibited at the Burns Library, Nightingale makes a plea to Alice Fisher for any talented ladies who “wish to make nursing a profession & who care for it,” to enroll at Nightingale’s School for Nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital. Before talking business, though she assures her friend, “Believe me that all your matters touch me tenderly.” Her compassion for her patients is clearly reflected in her work ethic as well, as evidenced by her confession to Mrs. Lewis that she has no time and by her hurriedly scrawled handwriting.

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Alice Fisher, dated July 23, 1881, from the Josephine A. Dolan Collection of Nursing History, MS1988-04, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Alice Fisher, dated July 23, 1881, Box 1, Folder 2, Josephine A. Dolan Collection of Nursing History, MS.1988.004, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Though I admire Florence Nightingale’s passion for her job and her patients, I’m not sure if these letters would be considered “ethical” in today’s medical world. Today, it would violate doctor-patient confidentiality for Nightingale to have written to her  friends about the fates of particular patients. Although I believe this confidentiality to be extremely important, I do not condemn Nightingale for writing these letters. She did it out of care for her patients and their families. She cared enough about the people she was helping to assure their families that they were okay. She also cared about the future of the nursing profession, as evidenced by her founding Nightingale’s School and her desire to assure that the nurses admitted there were “of the right caliber.” As BC premedical, nursing, and really all students, hopefully my peers and I would rise to her standards in whatever career path we may choose. Nightingale may not have literally set the world aflame, but the dedicated and compassionate “Lady with the Lamp” certainly lit up those dark hospital nights and warmed countless hearts.

If you would like the opportunity to view Nightingale’s letters, lamp, medicine cabinet, and more from the Josephine A. Dolan Collection of Nursing History, be sure to visit the Burns Library, which will be displaying the Notes on Nursing exhibit in the Fine Print Room from January 30th, 2013 until February 8th, 2013.  After the Notes on Nursing exhibit is over, all of the items on display are available for your research in the Burns Library Reading Room.  For more information about the Dolan Collection or the Burns Library, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

Anna Whitham

  • Anna Whitham, Conservation Assistant, John. J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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