This frank letter was written by Florence Nightingale to the Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert.
A century after her death, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) continues to divide opinion, regarded by some as the founder of modern nursing, by others as a tyrannical and domineering figure whose achievements fall far short of her myth.
The British Library’s collection of Nightingale papers, running to over 300 volumes, reveals the many facets of her brilliant and complex personality.
In 1854, amid growing public anger about the state of the military hospitals in the Crimea, Nightingale was appointed by Sidney Herbert, Secretary of State for War, to lead a party of nurses to the hospital at Scutari (in modern Istanbul, Turkey). Women had never before been allowed to serve officially in the army, so Nightingale’s position, reporting directly to the Secretary of State, gave her unprecedented authority.
She arrived in November 1854, just a few days after the Battle of Balaclava and the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade, and soon found herself in the middle of a major crisis as the military hospitals were overwhelmed with wounded men.
In this letter she reports on her success in reducing the death-rate at Scutari – which at its height had reached a staggering 52 percent – and also insists, in typically plain-spoken language, on her need for ‘trained nurses’ rather than ‘fat drunken old dames’.