Before her time

Daily Reading for August 12 • Florence Nightingale, Nurse, Social Reformer, 1910

Nightingale’s ideas might have more appeal now in the third millennium than in her own day. Certainly her most holistic approach to health care and emphasis on environmental factors and nutrition are popular now. Her highly positive conceptualization of human life will resonate with the present age, where it offended the dour hellfire and damnation adherents of her own. Her unorthodox religious views would offend few people now while her spirituality, nourished from diverse sources and not tied to any one religious institution, would attract rather than appear heretical. The fact that she gave up church attendance in her early thirties would intrigue now rather than scandalize. For today’s Christian feminists Nightingale is a great source, fully believing as she did in the equal right of women to develop themselves, their lives and careers. Liberation theologians and Christian socialists, now in a political climate of cutbacks of the welfare state, may be interested in her early vision of public health care and her work to advance it. Experts on India will find a rich trove of unpublished as well as now-hard-to-obtain published material. Although she never visited India, Nightingale became so immersed in Indian material, and such an advocate of Indian causes, that Indian nationalists appreciated her as a model. She was a mentor to Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gandhi’s mentor. Her systemic approach, the integration of physical, geographical factors with the social—land tenure, taxation, government institution—is as appropriate now as it was when she developed it.

Nightingale might even be a more congenial model for social scientists today than in her own time. Her hard-line quantitative approach will please some and displease others, as in the past. So will her insistence on knowledge for application. Yet her criticism of positivism as being too embedded in the seen, material world will cheer those who seek a greater role for values in social science without giving up on the principles of scientific method. Nightingale herself always maintained her commitment to values, religious values at that, while conducting, in some cases pioneering, practical empirical research. . . .

Those who denigrate Nightingale have been, in the opinion of the editors of this Collected Works, ill-informed. We, too, have had enough of the stereotyped heroine, and we want her now to be understood in all her complexity. Since a collected works tells all, warts, errors of judgment and ill temper will be evident. Overwhelmingly, however, the volumes to follow will portray a woman of extraordinary intellect, utter dedication to her calling, a prodigious appetite for work and touching human qualities, especially fierce loyalty to her co-workers. The spirituality that underlay all her intellectual and practical work will be apparent from beginning to end.

From the introduction to Florence Nightingale: An Introduction to Her Life and Family, edited by Lynn McDonald (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001).

Past Posts