Opinion: Why Florence Nightingale should be in the National Curriculum and why Liberal Democrats should want her there
The Secretary of State for Education has decided that Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), famous for the Crimean War (1854-56) and major founder of professional nursing should be thrown out of the National Curriculum. Mary Seacole, who is there now, is to stay. Many Liberal Democrats support this, probably thanks to misinformation in wide circulation from Seacole campaigners.
Nightingale influenced not only Britain but the world on nursing and hospital safety. She brought trained nursing into the dreaded the workhouse infirmaries, beginning in Liverpool in 1865. She called for quality health care for all, including those who could not pay fees (no NHS then). As early as 1864 she argued for the abolition of the punitive Poor Law system, to be replaced by agencies to provide care for the aged, chronically ill, disabled and children.
Nightingale was also a lifelong Liberal (no vote, of course). She wrote campaign letters for suitably progressive candidates, including one for the first Indian MP. She tried to get Gladstone to be more liberal on women and India; he admired her, but did not budge.
She was adept at presenting statistics in arguments for health care reforms, for which she was made the first woman Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. Do today’s girls have too many role models of effective social reformers, expert at statistics? Britons, male and female, young and old, have benefited from Nightingale’s reforms, and the health care system could use her help now.
What About Seacole?
Mary Seacole was a Jamaican businesswoman who ran a restaurant/bar/store/takeaway/catering service for officers during the Crimean War. She was generous and kind also to ordinary soldiers. She did first aid on the battlefield on three occasions, but missed the first three, major, battles (busy in London on her gold-mining stocks). She gave out tea to cold soldiers waiting transport to the general hospitals. She was an admirable person and her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands is still a lively read. There she reports only an amicable relationship with Nightingale (in contrast with the BBC’s numerous attacks on her), never claimed to be a heroine, nor to have won medals for bravery, and never claimed to have pioneered nursing or even to be a nurse.
There also she makes clear that she was three quarters white, proud of her Scots heritage, married to a white man, had a white business partner and an entirely white clientele. She never called herself “black” or “African.” Her frequent racial slurs are understandable in the historical context. But how did she become a “black heroine?
Mrs Seacole should be honoured for her own merits, and not given credit for Nightingale’s. For an expose of the misinformation on her see here.
Lynn McDonald, PhD, LLD (hon) is a former Canadian MP (New Democrat, related to Labour Party), a sociologist and director of the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale. See her short book, Florence Nightingale at First Hand (Continuum 2010).