ELHAS Meeting Report - June 2011

The last meeting of the summer programme in June saw a return of one of our most popular speakers Canon Ann Hemsworth. Ann seems to have a fund of talks about formidable ladies and there are few more formidable than the subject of last night's talk, Florence Nightingale. Ann began her talk by claiming to also be a formidable lady. And when one considers all the activities she is involved in, ranging from the guide movement to church duties this cannot be denied.

The illustrated talk she delivered was a snapshot of the life of Florence Nightingale universally known as "The Lady with the Lamp". She was born in Florence, hence the choice of name, on the 12th of May 1820 whilst her parents Fanny and William Nightingale were enjoying their two year honeymoon in Europe. The family she was born into were wealthy socialites, and Florence and her sister knew an upbringing of privilege and plenty. However Florence, a deeply religious woman knew, much to her mother's chagrin, that this was not the life for her, and indeed always felt she had been called by God to perform some great work. This is what led her to decide to become a nurse at the time when this calling could not be graced with the title 'profession' and was the prerogative of the lower classes.

Having trained in various hospitals in Europe she was eventually asked by Sidney Herbert to go to Scutari to help nurse the wounded soldiers from the Crimean War. On 21 October 1854, with a staff of 38 women volunteer nurses, trained by herself, she arrived at the military hospital at Scutari to be met with hostility by both doctors and military personnel. The insanitary conditions where the soldiers were being nursed, meant they were seven times more likely to die of disease in the hospital, rather than wounds received on the battlefield.

After being at first refused permission to work on the wards, conditions became so bad that the male authorities relented and allowed her and her staff into the hospital. She immediately introduced better levels of hygiene on the wards, and paid for fresh water, fruit, vegetables and equipment out of her own funds. Just by improving the sanitary conditions themselves, she drastically reduced mortality rates in the hospital. It was her inspirational devotion to duty and compassion though, which gave comfort and hope to the wounded, often working throughout the night.

The hardship that Florence endured during the Crimean War however, did not come without cost. In 1856 she returned to England as an invalid and remained bedridden to the end of her life. But her work had not gone unrecognised. She was awarded many accolades such as Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, and the Order of Merit. Despite her health problems, in 1860 she founded the Nightingale Training School and Home for Nurses at St Thomas's Hospital London. She died in 1910 at the age of ninety.

As always Ann managed to tell us details of her subject's life that we were not aware of. For example we did not know about how Florence had a great love of mathematics and statistics, which she put to such good use in her career. Nor that her work inspired Swiss businessman Henry Dumant to found that great humanitarian organisation The Red Cross. This insightful look at Florence's life was greatly enjoyed by the audience and proved to be a fitting end to our summer programme.

The next meeting on Monday 26th September will be an illustrated talk by Dr George Ingle on Yorkshire Dales Woollen Mills.