Letter: Human rights and Florence Nightingale

To: Dawn Armstrong, VP Human Rights and Equity
To: Cathryn Hoy, President, ONA

21 June 2022

Dear Ms Armstrong and Ms Hoy

I was sorry and somewhat embarrassed to see the proposal that ONA drop all reference to Florence Nightingale in International Nursing Week, etc., on account of her “mistakes,” unspecified. I am the director of the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, 16 volumes, peer-reviewed, so I have read everything she wrote that is now available (thousands of letters an documents). I have never seen anything that would qualify as a “mistake.” She is sometimes blamed for not discovering germ theory before Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister, but that is ridiculous!

There are two obvious sources for the accusation, Stake-Doucet’s blog on Nightingale, and an article in the journal of  the New Zealand Nurses Organization, both 2021, and neither with any concrete examples of fault—mere accusations. I emailed Ms Stake-Doucet to ask her for any examples, and she eventually) replied that she was not working on the subject any more and would not reply to my question. The New Zealand Nurses could not be found by email! Both, only a month after their article appeared, had left the New Zealand Nurses Organization. The journal, however, published my article of rebuttal (which does contain sources). A link to it is provided below.

I would be happy to meet with your organization, or any ONA board or other members, in person or by zoom, to give you a briefing.

The timing seems especially unfortunate. With Canadians becoming aware of the horrors of residential schools, nurses should be proud of the fact that a nurse, Nightingale, was the first person to expose the high rates of disease and death at such schools, not only in Canada (13 in Ontario), but Australia, Africa and Ceylon. Yes, Nightingale believed that black lives matter, and Indigenous lives matter. She tried to get the Colonial Office to follow up on her findings, but they did not.

Nightingale grew up in a progressive family—her grandfather worked with William Wilberforce on the abolition of slavery. She did a lot to get access for South Asian women to health care—when women would not see a male doctor—and so went without care.

The first black nurse in Britain’s National Health Service, the Nigerian Kofoworola Abeni Pratt, was a “Nightingale nurse,” that is, she trained at the Nightingale School in London, founded by Nightingale, because she was inspired by her.

Might I add that I strongly support you as a union. Every time I get asked about nurses (I am not a nurse myself) I say that nurses are under-paid and not given the respect they deserve for the work they do. Nightingale herself was a strong advocate for good salaries, benefits, a month’s holiday and, for nurses in the military, officer status—all this before there were unions.

yours sincerely

Lynn McDonald, CM, PhD, professor emerita

Additional reading on this website:
Florence Nightingale: A Leading Anti-Racist — The Nightingale Society
Defending Florence Nightingale’s Reputation (Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand) — The Nightingale Society