Opinion: Thanks to Simon Hughes and Liberal Democrat Voice for helping get Florence Nightingale back in history lessons

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that Florence Nightingale will remain in the National Curriculum after all, reversing a decision earlier this year to boot her out.

I want to offer my hanks to Liberal Democrat Voice for letting me state my reasons why Nightingale should stay in earlier this year. Thanks also to Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, for his efforts in getting the decision re-examined. Liberal Democrats can take a particular pleasure in seeing a fellow Liberal re-instated. Florence Nightingale was a lifelong Liberal supporter, at a time when political allegiances were fluid.

The Department of Education held a consultation on the history section of the National Curriculum, to which the Nightingale Society sent arguments, as did other individuals and organizations. This is a victory for rationality and good role models for girls in the school system. Nightingale was not only the founder of the modern profession of nursing, but a public health advocate, indeed with the bold vision of quality health care for all, regardless of ability to pay – a voice badly needed now in an increasingly privatized system.

The Department of Health in its turn needs to rethink Nightingale. It, also this year, announced a new list of awards honouring ‘pioneers of public health.’ Mary Seacole, but not Nightingale, is on it, along with the pioneer of smallpox vaccination (Edward Jenner), the first woman medical dean (Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) and the Cabinet minister who brought in the NHS in 1948 (Aneurin Bevan). Yet it was Nightingale who was Bevan’s predecessor, as the first person to articulate the goal of quality care for all, in 1864. Nightingale also is a match for Garrett Anderson, for assisting with the plans of the Women’s Hospital Garrett Anderson establishment in London, which now bears her name. Nightingale also helped to raise money for it. The hospital was needed because the few women doctors there were could not get into other hospitals.

Mary Seacole deserves to be celebrated, but anyone calling her a ‘pioneer of health care’ should explain what she did for it. A look at her fine memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, would show that she never touched on the subject, nor even claimed to be a pioneer nurse. Rather she tells us what she did do, a rambunctious account of her catering for officer customers at her restaurant/bar/takeaway/shop in the Crimea. Yes, she was kind to soldiers, too, but her hot tea and lemonade did not save thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, Nightingale’s contribution to health care only becomes more pertinent. Hospital-acquired infections are alternately a scandal or a mere threat. Her approach to prevention (not the details) is still valid, as is the ardent priority she gave to good patient care, when compassion does not suit the profit-driven hospital world.

* Lynn McDonald, PhD, LLD (hon) is a former Canadian MP (New Democrat, related to Labour Party), a sociologist and director of the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale. See her short book, Florence Nightingale at First Hand (Continuum 2010).

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5 Comments

  • Richard Dean 23rd Oct '13 - 3:46pm

    The fact that Nightingale may have been a liberal is irrelevant. At this simplified level, taught history is about the creation of expectations and role models for present and future generations, as part of the creation of an ethics and a concept of national identity and of our role in the world. We need to ask which pioneers’ stories can be presented in a way that helps in these present tasks.

    Nightingale’s story is certainly one of these, but we had perhaps best not highlight some aspects of her time. As it happens, the morale boosting effects of cheerful hot tea and lemonade can also, indeed, save lives.

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