In 1860, nine years before Dmitri Mendeleev published his periodic table, Florence Nightingale publicised the dangers of one of its key elements. Noting that harmful chemicals had been found in dust ‘lying about in rooms’ across Britain, she pleaded with her readers to decorate their homes carefully. In ‘colouring certain green [wall]papers’, Nightingale warned, ‘arsenic is used.’
Yet, much like the decorative paper that masks the detail of the structure beneath it, the depth of Nightingale’s character continues to be concealed. Academic and popular history has broadly depicted Nightingale in two mythic and simplistic ways:
Firstly, she is the saintly Lady with the Lamp tending to suffering soldiers in the Crimean War. Secondly, Nightingale is the campaigner and the shaper of the modern nursing profession – the woman who established the first nursing training school at St Thomas’s Hospital in 1860.
But what else shaped this inspirational leader and globally significant historical figure? And, what informed Nightingale’s early-feminist and pioneering work in health and the development of modern nursing?
These are some of the questions driving the activity and research of the University of Nottingham’s Florence Nightingale Comes Home: a three-year (2018-2021) Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project designed by the University’s Professor Paul Crawford (Health Sciences) and Dr Anna Greenwood (History).
"Her pioneering respect for the dignity of the patient, and a belief in the importance of providing everyday comforts to those in distress were also shaped closer to home."
Following an early career as a mental health nurse and later doctoral study in the field of humanities, Professor Crawford is now the world’s first professor of the Health Humanities – a field that directly applies creative or fine arts practices and humanities disciplines to human health and well-being to promote inclusive health agendas and care practices.
Professor Crawford has long admired Nightingale’s creativity and leadership in a way that resonates with his own passion to change and challenge typical viewpoints of healthcare.
“Florence Nightingale was much more than the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ defined by her Crimea experiences,” he said. “Her pioneering respect for the dignity of the patient, and a belief in the importance of a ‘homely’ environment were also shaped closer to home.”
Florence Nightingale Comes Home investigates these neglected influences and aims to reanimate Nightingale’s life, work and legacy in the Midlands, moving her public image beyond its association with London and reconnecting her history and heritage with her roots in Derbyshire.
"By engaging the region’s nurses with the untold story of such an iconic forebear, we also hope to enrich perspectives on well-being by thinking about new approaches to healthcare, just as Florence Nightingale did over a century ago."
The project’s aim to bring Nightingale home to Derbyshire pays attention to an overlooked area of academic scholarship and establishes the influence of the home, in all its guises and conceptions, on her life and work. It is little known that the Nightingale family had a Derbyshire residence, at Lea Hurst at Holloway, near Matlock, and that Florence Nightingale returned there throughout her life.
Nightingale’s prolific writing and recorded experiences show that homes and the notion of home comforts were central to her conception of good and ill health. Her life was spent pursuing homely healthcare and healthy homes – a movement that generated new perspectives on the ideas of public health from a non-clinical perspective and enriched the infrastructures of healthcare in a way that’s still recognisable today.
In celebrating such under-acknowledged aspects of Nightingale’s life and works, the project has brought a team of academic researchers together; hosted research workshops and discussion sessions for nurses; and developed links with a collection of citizen researchers, partners and supportive organisations. “This is a fascinating area of research and our findings will inform our understanding of themes ranging from how the Victorians viewed mental illness to the political and social aspects of nursing and healthcare reform,” added Professor Crawford. “By engaging the region’s nurses with the untold story of such an iconic forebear, we also hope to enrich perspectives on well-being by thinking about new approaches to healthcare, just as Florence Nightingale did over a century ago.”
Paul is the world’s first Professor of Health Humanities, and Director of the Centre for Social Futures at the Institute of Mental Health at the University.