To Florence Nightingale Museum trustees

Dame Christine Beasley, chair
Professor Ian Norman
Jonathan Card
Colin Brough
Alastair Gourlay
Jonathan Rounce, CA
Chloe Sheppard
Janet Vitmayer, OBE
Baroness Mary Watkins
copy: Natasha McEnroe, director

Dear Florence Nightingale Museum Trustees

We write with concerns about the poor coverage of Florence Nightingale at the Museum and its trend of becoming a Mary Seacole Museum. We understand the difficulties, with Sir Hugh Taylor avidly promoting the Mary Seacole myth, and the Museum being dependent on the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust for its space. Nonetheless, it is a Nightingale museum for charitable status purposes; people have given money, time and effort to set it up and maintain it.

Herewith some specifics, beginning with Nightingale:

The FN Museum website. Edith Cavell is on the Museum’s website, but with no mention of her connection with Nightingale (she trained at a hospital whose matron Nightingale mentored; she was night superintendent at one where Nightingale not only mentored the matron, but got professional nursing started and a better building built).

Alexis Soyer is also on the Museum’s website, but with only passing mention of Nightingale, yet he worked with her nearly every day for a year on improving nutrition, and wrote much about her in his memoir.

Since this is a Nightingale museum, should not the connections be made?

The bookstore. Last checked, the only book by Nightingale it had available was a bad edition (the only bad edition) of her Notes on Nursing, nothing on her very strong later work. The bookstore has in the past (is it now still?) even sold the BBC film that badly misrepresented her (even opposing the vote for women, when she supported it). Nightingale did excellent work, which deserves to be celebrated – why fall for the cheap shots?

Children’s presentations: some trivialize Nightingale–“my house had 14 bedrooms”; the BBC “documentary,” which portrays Nightingale as a racist (so fallacious the BBC Trustees required it to be removed) has been shown as entertainment. Instead, the Museum should have protested it! It should not sell or use anti-Nightingale material. If you can come up with legitimate, negative, material, do say what.

Exhibitions: understandably, the Museum has to put on numerous exhibitions and they will not all concern Nightingale. However, when the subject does concern Nightingale, no mention is made. The Workhouse exhibition the Museum put on did not mention Nightingale at all, yet workhouse reform generally, and workhouse infirmary nursing reform particularly, were major Nightingale causes, and she was enormously successful. This is part of NHS history. Why not be proud of it?

Lectures: a lot feature Seacole supporters. When was Nightingale last featured? What plans are there for Nightingale material now?

Website on Seacole: it has much material that is simply, factually, wrong, and can be seen to be wrong by consulting Seacole’s own fine memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. It credits her with a cure for cholera, but fails to mention that she added lead and mercury to her “remedies” and admitted “lamentable blunders” (see WA, 31). Her “remedies” indeed would have made bowel patients worse off: emetics, purging and blistering all dehydrate, when cholera and other bowel patients need rehydration.

Your website claims that Seacole had a successful cure for yellow fever, with picked medical herbs; any evidence for its success? What was it?

She stated in her memoir that she was asked to provide nurses to the army hospital at Kingston, but she did not. So why credit her with doing something she did not do?

Nor was she “often in attendance at sick wharf.” She generously and kindly did go to the wharf and gave hot tea to soldiers waiting transport, but that was only while she was waiting for her huts to be built (she was living on a nearby boat). She did not continue this when her business opened.

Your website states: “She stayed in Balaclava as long as the troops were there.” No, nor a claim she made; Nightingale stayed at her hospital until the last soldier was discharged.

You have Seacole giving away “any profit she made,” a total fiction, nor did she ever say this. (Where?) She and her business partner both acknowledged a business error–they restocked lavishly expecting the troops (and the officers, their customers) to stay longer in the Crimea. “My restaurant was always full” (p 178), as Mrs Seacole put it. When the peace treaty was signed, the army went home. They lost their officer customers and the Russians would not buy the stock.

We would be happy to meet with you to provide a briefing on Nightingale and Seacole. We would be happy to debate with Seacole issues any Seacole supporters you care to name: Sir Hugh Taylor, Martin Jennings, Lord Soley! How about it?

Sincerely yours

[14 members of the Nightingale Society]