On this day December 29: Florence Nightingale

florence nightingale december 29 lady of the lamp
Stained Glass Window: Amanda Slater from Coventry, West Midlands, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0

On December 29 1977, Canberrans reached for the smelling salts when the Canberra Times reported that a new book would depict Florence Nightingale, the sainted Lady of the Lamp, as a lesbian.

“In The Private Life of Florence Nightingale, author Dr Richard Gordon tells the story of Florence as a lesbian who has a passionate affair with another woman.

“The account, though fictional, is based on fact, Dr Gordon says.

“[The author of the] Doctor in the House books says he has interpreted published letters that Florence wrote to friends.

However, the paper reported that the Royal College of Nursing defended Nightingale’s virtue and criticised Gordon for spotlighting her sex life.

“She was a great Victorian lady,” a college spokesman said.

“Dr Gordon seems to have interpreted her character through letters, which is very difficult.”

It is no surprise that people and institutions associated with Nightingale would deny she was a lesbian. Throughout history, people and institutions treated any suggestion that a famous person might be homosexual as blasphemous.

However, in this case, the College of Nursing had a point.

Already a best-selling author, Richard Gordon knew how to market a book. Attacking the reputation of a saint always works, and he found plenty to disparage in the life of the founder of modern nursing.

“I found her in the old medical libraries of London… as complex, neurotic, courageous, vain, undoubtedly lesbian, a ruthless female politician.”

The Lady of the Lamp

Florence Nightingale became perhaps the greatest non-royal female hero of British history through her pioneering work in nursing.

Born in 1820 into a wealthy family, she studied subjects like mathematics and philosophy, regarded as wasted on a woman.

She became famous during the Crimean War leading a team of women volunteers to care for wounded soldiers at a field hospital. Horrified by the unhygienic conditions, Nightingale introduced stringent sanitary measures. Her volunteers washed the bedding of men who formerly lay on sheets covered in shit. Despite the scoffing of senior male officers, Nightingale insisted on regular hand-washing, sewers were flushed, and ventilation improved. The death rate declined.

Back home, she advocated for improved sanitary practices, her abrasive manner continually pissing off the male bureaucracy – but she won.

Critics complained that Florence Nightingale undertook little practical work herself. Although the ‘Lady of the Lamp’ made nightly rounds of the wards, she rarely tended wounds herself.

Her own sister called her ‘a shocking nurse’.

“She has little or none of what is called charity or philanthropy. She is ambitious – very… I wish she could be brought to see that it is the intellectual part that interests her, not the manual.”

Parthenope Nightingale’s criticism inadvertently highlighted her sister’s actual strengths. Florence Nightingale excelled as an administrator and statistician.

The data she collected on soldier mortality rates proved invaluable to sanitary reforms that substantially lowered death rates.

Florence Nightingale’s sexuality

Dr Richard Gordon was not the first to suggest Florence Nightingale was a lesbian. A previous biographer hinted at it in the forties, but both based their claims on very slim evidence.

Florence Nightingale never married and often referred to herself by male pronouns and as ‘a man of action’.

She once wrote of a female cousin, “I have never loved but one person with passion in my life, and that was her.”

In another letter, she wrote, “I have lived and slept in the same beds with English Countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have.”

The last piece of evidence came from the writing of Elizabeth Blackwell, an English doctor who became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Once, as Florence showed Elizabeth around the Nightingale family home, she talked of turning the house into a hospital.

“I think how I should turn it into a hospital ward. I should be perfectly happy working with you – I should want no other husband!”

That’s about it. While those isolated comments might suggest lesbianism, they certainly don’t provide proof. Nor do they act as evidence of heterosexuality.

It is reasonable to conclude of Florence Nightingale’s sexuality that we simply don’t know. Or that she was, as she claimed, chaste and married to her work. Indeed, the most reliably celibate people are often workaholics. They are too buggered – sorry, tired – at the end of each day to be bothered. And the Lady of the Lamp famously worked 20-hour days.

Read more: December 28 <— On this day —> December 30

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