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Vilification of Nightingale

Many Seacole supporters make a point of castigating Nightingale for faults, typically based on bad secondary sources and speculation. It is easy to do this now, for attacks on Nightingale are plentiful, in print, films, television documentaries, and now the social media.

Smith and Small

The first concerted attack on Nightingale’s life and work dates to 1982, with the publication of F.B. Smith’s Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power. The gross errors of that book have been well documented, but it continues to be quoted as a reliable source. See Lynn McDonald, “Florence Nightingale Revealed in her own Writings,” Times Literary Supplement December 6 2000:14-15; and “Appendix B: The Rise and Fall of Florence Nightingale’s Reputation,” in Life and Family 1:843-47 and “Appendix B: Secondary Sources on Nightingale and Women,” in Women, 8:1039-53; “The Revisionist Literature on Nightingale,” in Extending Nursing (12:31-36). An adulatory review of Smith’s now 30-year old book appeared as recently as March 31 2012 in the British Medical Journal.

Nurses and nurse historians, who did not begin the attack on Nightingale, joined in it all too gleefully. No nurse or nursing organization defended Nightingale against Smith’s unfounded accusations.

A second attack was launched in 1998 by Hugh Small with his Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel, this time with a focus on Nightingale’s Crimean War work. Small went so far as to charge Nightingale with gross negligence, making her responsible for the high death rates she did so much to expose and ensure that they never occurred again. He produced not so much as one table or graph in support of his accusations, used rough estimates of figures instead of full data, and made inappropriate “apples and oranges” comparisons in his analysis (see Lynn McDonald, “Secondary Sources on Nightingale and the Crimean War,” in The Crimean War 14:32-40).

Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport, whose wildly pro-Seacole articles are noted elsewhere, has contributed mightily also to the vilification of Florence Nightingale. Her entry on Nightingale in An Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers includes some accurate information, and credits her with good statistical work. However, it gives only passing mention to two areas of work where Nightingale was highly innovative and influential, on hospital construction and workhouse infirmary reform. Rappaport made numerous trivial errors, such as misnaming Nightingale's Harley St. hospital, and failed to give sources for contentious statements, which are entirely without foundation, to my knowledge, such as that the governing body at Harley St. "resented her interference" (2:488). Available correspondence from Lady Canning rather shows how much her work was appreciated.

More seriously, Rappaport uncritically accepted Hugh Small's accusations that Nightingale was responsible for the high death rates of "her hospital" at Scutari (2:486), a point twice repeated (2:490 and 2:492), while Hugh Small's website is recommended. The highest death rates were at the Koulali Hospital, which was not under Nightingale's jurisdiction.

Rappaport repeats the familiar error that Nightingale opposed the vote for women, that she "never lent her voice to the women's suffrage movement" (2:492). Her support of suffrage, including public statements, with thanks from the Women's Suffrage Society and a receipt for her dues, appears in Society and Politics (5:388-409) in the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale. Rappaport also has Nightingale failing to acknowledge the early nursing contributions of others (2:491), although she repeatedly gave credit to the matron at St Thomas' Hospital, Sarah Wardroper, whose reforms predated her school there, and to Anglican sister Mary Jones, from whom Nightingale learned much when she was founding her school, and whom she recruited to head the midwifery nursing at King's College Hospital.

Rappaport's chapter on Nightingale in No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War, titled "Miss Nightingale Queens It with Absolute Power," is laced with sarcasm and innuendo. Another article, "The Invitation that Never Came," gives a fanciful explanation of why Seacole, unlike Nightingale, was never invited to Balmoral Castle, although she was so famous that the queen undoubtedly would have wanted to meet her (11). It took, Rappaport conjectured, somebody to "turn the queen's mind against making a public acknowledgement of Seacole," for which there could be "only one logical candidate," Nightingale (11), whom she also described as the "self-appointed "Matron and Chaperone and Mother of the Army" (13), "whose opposition to Seacole was "implacable" (12). The article ends with Rappaport's evident satisfaction that Nightingale's "star" was waning, while "the post-colonial atmosphere of political correctness has now ensured that Mary Seacole's will once more burn bright" (15).

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