The nursing union Unison made a unanimous decision in 1999 to “ditch” Florence Nightingale as the founder of nursing (“Nurses ditch Florence Nightingale image,” BBC Online News 27 April 1999). Its reasons are troubling, that she was “white, middle class and Protestant” (true), and “had set up her hospital with family money” (false, she set up no hospital but led the nursing team to the hospitals the British Army assigned them) and “had a reputation for a hierarchical approach to nursing” (armies are hierarchical, as were civil hospitals, too, at the time).

Health visitor Wendy Wheeler argued that nurses must “start to exorcise the myth of Florence Nightingale.” She seems not to have known that Nightingale did more than anyone else to found the modern profession of nursing, took up the occupational health and safety of nurses, was a successful hospital reformer and had a vision of public health care, much of which she saw achieved, as early as 1864!

Wheeler added that “Florence Nightingale believed nurses should be subordinate to doctors,” a frequent statement, which assumes equal relations with doctors to have been possible. In the early 1850s, when Nightingale began to reform nursing, nurses at St Bartholomew’s Hospital were housed in “wooden cages” on the landings (Nightingale always argued for private rooms for nurses). Hospital “nurses” in civil hospitals at the time were mainly cleaners (exceptionally, a doctor would give informal training to a “nurse” who would then look after his patients). Army nurses were recruited from among the wives and widows of private soldiers and non-commissioned officers, reported to a sergeant, and were paid less than a cook or laundress; they did not so much as speak to a doctor (Nightingale got nurses moved up to being junior professionals, of the officer class).

When Nightingale set to work, nursing was not a profession at all, but an occupation of ill repute. Women were not then allowed in any university in the UK (the first two graduated in 1881), and few had the equivalent of a high school education. To have insisted in 1860 that nurses be treated as professional equals to medically qualified men would have ensured that no hospital would have agreed to hire or train them. Nightingale began where women were, with apprenticeship-style training. Literacy was the only requirement for admission to her school, and occasionally someone was admitted who could not read or write. The tutor at the Nightingale School attended the classes given by a doctor, to be able to coach the pupils on the material.

It is ironical that the nursing union keen to “ditch” Nightingale has its new headquarters in the renovated Hospital for Women, founded by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, on Euston Road. Nightingale advised on the plan for the hospital (the initial version made it impossible to nurse adequately, she thought), supported the fund raising for the hospital with a letter to the Times and herself contributed £50 (reprinted in The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale 8:63-66).

Unison now actively supports the appeal to have a Seacole statue erected at St Thomas’ Hospital and its president is a “patron” of the campaign, alas one that purveys much misinformation. We repeat: we are not opposed to a statue honouring Seacole, but its placement at Nightingale’s hospital.

There is an odd double standard in Unison’s treatment of the two women, in denouncing Nightingale for being “white, middle class and Protestant” (BBC online news), while promoting Seacole, who was roughly three quarters white, also middle class (and a property owner), but now Roman Catholic instead of Protestant.

Unison’s denigration of Nightingale is doubtless a reaction to the long history of white racism. As “reverse racism” it is nothing like the racism it protests, but it is nonetheless morally wrong: the rejection of a person for the race of her birth.