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The Year of the Nurse and what an eyewitness account reveals about ‘the lady with the lamp’

Florence Nightingale

As we celebrate the Year of the Nurse and the 150th anniversary of the British Red Cross, Institute of English Studies research fellow Dr Karen Attar, takes a look at an eye-witness account of a nurse who accompanied Florence Nightingale, ‘the lady with the lamp’, to Scutari in 1854.

Florence Nightingale was born 200 years ago this year, in 1820. In her honour we are celebrating the Year of the Nurse, and she supported the foundation of the British Red Cross in August 1870. As in the year of Covid-19 we honour the work of 21st-century nurses, we look back to an indomitable nurse known from the books and reports pertaining to the Crimean War which poured cheaply and speedily from the English press from its beginning.  

‘In the silence of night … might often be seen a slender form gliding noiselessly through the wards and corridors … It was Miss Nightingale, who, ending a day of untiring activity, would take a last look to ascertain whether any duty had been neglected, any urgent case forgotten, any solace unadministered’;  ‘there has indeed rarely been such an example of heroic daring combined with feminine gentleness’ (George Dodd, Pictorial History of the Russian War 1854–5–6 (Edinburgh, 1856), p. 310 and 306). 

Similarly, Edward Henry Nolan’s Illustrated History of the War against Russia (London, 1855–1857) describes Nightingale’s refined background (wealthy, well-travelled, a linguist) to underline her self-denial, rhapsodises: ‘the beautiful and beneficent name of Florence Nightingale cometh sweetly as “flute-notes in a storm”’, and states:

‘Wherever there is disease in its most dangerous form … there is this incomparable woman sure to be seen; her benignant presence is an influence for good comfort, even amid the struggles of expiring nature. She is a ‘ministering angel’ without any exaggeration, in these hospitals; and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor every poor fellow’s face softens with gratitude at the sight of her. When all the medical officers have retired for the night … she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds. … With the heart of a true woman, and the manners of a lady, accomplished and refined beyond most of her sex, she combines a surprising calmness of judgment and promptitude and decision of character’ (pp. 707–8).

Eye-witness accounts by Nightingale’s female colleagues provide an opportunity either to reinforce such stereotypical hyperbole, showing essential toughness united with femininity, or to redress an imbalance. Experiencing her more nearly, over a longer period, than the masculine reporters, and sharing her privations, they can be expected to have a less romantic view. Publishing later, a political agenda is less relevant.

The book featured here, Reminiscence of Scutari Hospitals (Edinburgh, 1898), is by Sarah Anne Terrot (1822–1902). The oldest daughter of Charles Hugh Terrot (1790–1872), the Scottish Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh, she joined the Anglican Sisterhood of the Holy Cross (the ‘Sellonites’) and was one of the 38 women who went out to serve with Florence Nightingale in 1854. She returned home for health reasons and in 1887, was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her work in the Crimea. 

Terrot’s work is a diary of her experiences. It describes the journey to Scutari, part of today’s Istanbul, the conditions there, the behaviour and illnesses of the soldiers she tended, and the activities undertaken by herself and the other nurses. Terrot revered Florence Nightingale, who was her line manager.

Of meeting Nightingale on 21 October 1854, Terrot wrote: ‘from the first moment I felt an impulse to love, trust, and respect her. Her appearance and manner impressed me with a sense of goodness and wisdom, of high mental powers highly cultivated and devoted to the highest ends’ (p. 6). This opinion continued to the end of their time together: ‘in all my personal intercourse with her the impression she gave me at first of kindness, firmness and wisdom was fully realised’ (p. 102).

She is candid about Nightingale’s vulnerability as a bad sailor, who was ill on the entire journey to the Dardanelles, and as a tired, overworked woman: ‘She looked, I thought, very sweet and kind, though delicate and worn out’ (p. 33). She reinforces the view of Florence Nightingale as an angel of mercy, distributing shirts to shirtless soldiers, cheering and soothing the ill with her ‘sweet voice and gentle words’, and administering brandy to a dying soldier before visiting the morgue, where ‘it seemed strange to see one so frail, graceful, and refined standing at the dead of night alone amid such sad scenes of mortality’ (p. 41).

Terrot hints at Florence Nightingale’s administrative struggles, having to negotiate what food went to which wards from the general kitchen and to intervene when supposedly clean shirts washed by local staff arrived at the hospital full of lice and nits. She has some insight into the effort required simply to keep the nursing body there: ‘I believe Miss N had difficulty in holding out and preventing the whole body being condemned and dismissed en masse for indiscretion and “trop de zèle”.’ (p. 73). 

Far more, however, she shows Nightingale as a staff manager, directing the nurses’ duties, and consulting them for their preferences before transferring them between hospitals. She was available when personnel difficulties arose, as when Terrot, hesitating to visit a different part of the hospital from the one to which Florence Nightingale had assigned her, was told that a Catholic sister was in charge of that hospital. Terrot went to see Nightingale: 

I expressed the feeling that however I might personally respect and admire the nuns, I had reasons for wishing not to be under their command or direction. Miss N explained that I was not to consider myself in any way under the command of Sister M de G, but was to consult her, i.e. Miss N, alone in any difficulty, and that the charge given to Sister M related only to the outward conduct of the nurses, and not to us. (p. 71)

One aspect of Nightingale’s character upon which Terrot does not touch is her brisk practicality. That is left to the publication of another nurse who worked with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, Memories of the Crimea by Sister Mary Aloysius (London, 1897). That book describes Nightingale watching by the bedside of a Catholic nun who was ill with fever: ‘One night … she saw a huge rat upon the rafters right over the Sister’s head; and taking an umbrella, knocked it down and killed it without disturbing the patient’ (p. 124).

Senate House Library at the University of London holds Reminiscence of Scutari Hospitals, and the other works mentioned in this blog, within the M S Anderson Collection of writings pertaining to western perceptions of Russia from 1525 until 1917. The collection includes more than 160 titles devoted to the Crimean War, published from 1854 onwards: general histories; personal reminiscences by military and medical personnel and others of both sexes and various nationalities, diaries, letters, pamphlets, parliamentary papers, maps and fiction. 

The publication stands out because men wrote the vast majority of first-hand records relating to the war. Accounts by nurses are a subset of the few written by women. Anthony Cross names just two in his bibliography of writings about the Crimean War, and Terrot’s work constitutes a third.

Dr Karen Attar is a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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