Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse by Catherine Reef

Florence Nightingale was named after the Italian city of her birth on May 12, 1820. Despite society’s restrictions she forged her way to the front lines to follow her desire to help the sick and wounded taking advantage of a British experiment to provide female nurses on the war front during the Crimean War. Her talents to organize and clean up the mess she found provided hope to the soldiers as she ministered to their needs. Gaining worldwide renown, Florence Nightingale soon became known as “The Lady with the Lamp” named for her nocturnal wanderings taking care of the wounded throughout the wards. Catherine Reef goes into detail examining the life and times of this famous healer in her biography, Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse.

Even as a child, Florence was fascinated by illness, keeping a journal with the various ailments of family members and their treatments. Contrary to the views of the times, Florence and her sister Parthenope were taught by their father who believed girls were just as capable as boys, providing them with a comparable education to what he would have given a son. The family completed their daughters education with a continental tour. Being born into an affluent family, Florence followed the example of her mother’s charity work by visiting and nursing the poor. Although she had many suitors, Florence felt that she had been called by God to minister to the sick and infirmed. While traveling with friends in Germany, she had the opportunity to spend two weeks at Kaiserswerth, a Lutheran facility containing a hospital staffed by deaconesses. However, her family disapproved of her desire to be a nurse and only begrudgingly conceding to her wish to further her education, honing her nursing skills at Kaiserswerth, partly due to her melancholy (as well as her veiled threats of suicide). Although Florence admired and developed a friendship with Elizabeth Blackwell, she felt that nursing was a better path to caring for those in need than being a doctor. She furthered her career by becoming the administrator of a small hospital for impoverished gentlewomen (a position which remained unpaid due to her social standing). All these experiences helped her when she was assigned to be the supervisor at a wartime hospital in Istanbul. While the French soldiers had the Sisters of Charity to provide for their needs, the British wounded had Florence Nightingale. Against the odds she used her connections to help improve the living conditions of the wounded and increase their chances of survival. This was an almost impossible task due to all the red tape as well as the reluctance (actually disdain) of the head doctor to support her requests. Unfortunately, she caught what was known as Crimean Fever, a bacterial infection, which continued to plague her throughout her life.

After the war 45,000 pounds was collected for Florence to open a nursing school, but first she wanted improve the health care system, especially for the military. Using her fame or “Nightingale Power”, along with the help of numerous influential friends (including Queen Victoria), she convinced the military to make changes by using statistics to show that more soldiers died from the conditions in the hospitals than from actual combat. Even at home the death rate of soldiers was double that of civilians. Florence then opened a school to train nurses, accomplished while she suffered from the lingering effects of her Crimean illness. She relied on the help of family and friends to do the footwork while she dictated action from her sickbed. Florence even published three widely read books toting her theories of health care advocating “sleep, fresh air, and regular food: these are the three great medicines”. At first Nightingale followed the theory of miasma – that disease was affected by the lack of cleanliness, fresh air, good food, and well lit comfortable accommodations. Eventually she adopted the teachings of Lister realizing that contagion played a part in the spread of illness, necessitating not just cleanliness, but disinfecting solutions.

Throughout this biography is an undercurrent of Florence Nightingale’s true character. She was not only driven in her personal behaviors but also demanded complete loyalty from her friends and family, expecting them to totally devote themselves to the cause. Such dedication was detrimental not only to her own health but also to those closest to her, and she found herself outliving all those she truly loved. She also liked to be the one in charge resenting any direct competition. Stubbornness was in her nature.

However, Nightingale was a true advocate of women’s rights, disdaining the nineteenth century mores which kept women homebound caring for children and doing household tasks, while being considered inferior to men as if they were lacking the ability to fulfill their true advocations. She lived until 1910, and thus saw others take up the mantle of women’s rights.

While this book contained detailed and fascinating information about Florence Nightingale, the question remains on who the true audience is for this particular biography. Its focus and vocabulary are a little above a typical children’s book. While the name dropping of the famous friends surrounding Florence were fascinating to me, most teens would not appreciate their relevance. I was impressed by the lengthy bibliography and the numerous photographs and illustrations scattered throughout the book, as well as the detailed index. Yet this well researched biography, containing a number of primary sources, falls between the cracks being too simplistic for adults, not compelling enough for the YA crowd, and too difficult for the average middle school student (unless they are assigned a research project on this topic). If this was written for school aged children it should have contained a timeline of events as a reference, and perhaps an annotated list of the people who were part of Nightingale’s life.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Clarion books who provided this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.


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