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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Anna Whitham, Conservation Assistant, John. J. Burns Library