Jun 05 2013
Dr Lucy Worsley chooses a figure as familiar as she is unknown, the great champion of Victorian nursing, Florence Nightingale. Known as 'the Lady with the Lamp' for her work in the Crimea. Born in 1820 into an upper middle class family, Florence experienced early life as a bird in a gilded cage and suffered frequent 'nervous collapse'. Prodigiously intelligent, she was also deeply religious, and at 16 declared she had heard the voice of God, calling her to nursing. By her thirties, and despite opposition from her family, Florence had succeeded in training as a nurse. She was working in a Harley Street establishment for the care of gentlewomen when Britain and France joined Turkish forces against the Russians in the Crimea. As reports came in of the men's suffering, she became convinced of her ability to help. Commissioned by the War Office, Florence set sail for the Crimea in 1854, and her work there quickly became well known. Walking the corridors with her lamp, she was adored by the men for her determination to spare them the diseases like cholera and typhus that were decimating their numbers. But she was as steely as she was compassionate, and ran her troop of nurses with a military discipline. In Britain her reputation grew. By the time of her return two years later, Florence was a reluctant celebrity, frail and ill. While her mother and sister basked in her glory, Florence retreated from the limelight, and for some years was bed-bound. It's now believed she had brucellosis, an illness contracted through infected milk, which leads to depression and severe pain. Yet this did not stop her engagement with medicine, and even from her bed she was instrumental in changing the way that healthcare was implemented both in the Army, and in society at large. Statistics was key to this, and a passion for Florence, who saw in the gathering of data, the evidence of God's patterns at work. She also famously established a school for nursing, and professionalised nursing work. Dr Lucy Worsley, television historian, writer and Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that looks after buildings including Hampton Court and the Tower of London, joins Matthew Parris to discuss the complex background of 'the Lady with the Lamp'. And biographer Mark Bostridge explains why Nightingale has a right to be regarded as a great genius of the Victorian age. Producer: Lizz Pearson First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2013.