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Historical Distortion

Five common myths about Florence Nightingale’s influence on the birth of the American nursing profession

Wednesday June 22, 2011
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“I really don’t know of any other figure in history that has had as much misunderstanding of her as Florence Nightingale,” said Nightingale historian Louise Selanders, RN, EdD, FAAN, professor and director of the master’s program at the Michigan State University College of Nursing in East Lansing. “There are a lot of myths out there that are just wrong.”

Here are five of them, according to Selanders and Joan Lynaugh, RN, PhD, FAAN, professor emerita at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia, and director emerita of the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing there.

Nightingale served as a consultant to the Union Army during the Civil War.

There is no evidence Nightingale was in extended contact with Union Army officials, and she never came to the U.S. She did write that she sent “upon application” statistical information she had collected during the Crimean War to the Union’s war secretary, and there is evidence the Union used her work extensively in setting up its regulations for hospitals and camps. She also corresponded with Dorothea Dix, who served as superintendent of nursing for the Union during the war, Selanders said.

Nightingale and Dorothea Dix met in the Crimea or in England.

Dix and Nightingale almost met a couple of times, but missed each other, Selanders said. Dix went to the Crimea soon after Nightingale had left, and also was in London, but not at the same time as Nightingale.

Nightingale was actively involved in setting up post-war nursing schools in the U.S.

Nightingale corresponded with people setting up nursing schools and programs in all corners of the world, but her exchanges with those setting up American nursing schools were relatively few — though effective, according to Lynn McDonald, editor of a collection of Nightingale’s correspondence called, “Florence Nightingale: Extending Nursing.”

Nightingale exchanged letters with several American physicians setting up nursing schools who sought her advice, and she tried to provide some of her nurses to work as instructors in 1873-74. Later, she corresponded with some American nurses and reformers, including Isabel Hampton Robb, about nursing schools and programs in Boston and New York in the 1890s. She also accepted — reluctantly — an honorary degree from the New Jersey Training School for Nurses with a lengthy letter of advice.

Nightingale trained and mentored Linda Richards, the first recognized graduate of the post-war U.S. nursing schools.

In 1877, Nightingale met Richards and made arrangements for her to attend the St. Thomas school as a visitor for six weeks (she could not take time for a full year of training) and for another six weeks in Edinburgh, Scotland. Richards wrote to Nightingale to thank her, and sent a few more letters after returning to the U.S. Nightingale’s diary records two short visits from Richards, and Richards said of their meeting, “The one dream of my nursing years was being fulfilled.” But there is no evidence of any extended mentoring or training.

Nightingale wrote the “Nightingale Pledge,” used until recently in many American nursing schools.

Lystra Gretter, instructor at a nursing school in Detroit, wrote the pledge in honor of Nightingale in 1893, Selanders said, and other schools quickly adopted it. It was based on the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians.


Cathryn Domrose is a staff writer for Nurse.com. Email editor@nurse.com or post a comment below.