“Worse Than Dust and Nothing”: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale Courtesy Library of Congress

Florence Nightingale, although she detested fame and wished to be forgotten after her death, has become a legend. Born on May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy, the baby girl was named after the city of her birth. She joined an older sister, Parthenope known as Parthe. Her parents, William or W.E.N and Fanny Nightingale had been touring Europe since 1818 and by 1821 had returned to England. And so began the raising of complicated ‘Flo’. At a young age she distanced herself from others thinking she was some sort of freak. However, in comparison to her sister, she was considered smarter, prettier, and possessed leadership qualities.

In 1837 Nightingale stated that God had called her “into His service”. At that time she did not yet know what her calling was. That same year she set out on a tour of Europe, which was anything but boring. Upon returning to England, Nightingale found she was terribly disturbed with herself. She enjoyed the social life with its flamboyance and the attention she received, but thought it a wicked and worthless lifestyle. No one realized the turmoil she suffered inside, as she struggled to come to grip with herself. She still didn’t know what her call was in life and was plagued with a severe case of daydreaming. It would later become so bad that she’d drift in and out of reality, loosing track of time as she set up stories in her mind in which she was the heroine.

By 1844 Nightingale had come to the conclusion that her call was nursing. She didn’t let anyone know right away. At the time nursing was not a profession to be pursued, as it was very lowly and hospitals were ‘dens of iniquity’. Hospitals could be dangerous places to work in with all its horrifying filth. Not to mention drunkenness ran rampant among the staff. Nightingale tortured herself inwardly and was frequently ill for most of the year, unable to attend social engagements. Finally in late 1845, Florence brought up the subject of staying at the Salisbury Infirmary to learn nursing. The reaction wasn’t pretty. W.E.N. considered her an ungrateful brat, Fanny was furious and Parthe was hysterical. Nightingale was miserable and with no aim in life said it was “worse than dust and nothing”.

After much struggle and turmoil, Fanny finally consented, albeit grudgingly, to allow Nightingale to go to Kaiserworth in 1851. There was a catch though. Nightingale was not to tell anyone of the undertaking. And so she ventured out into the medical world and found herself yearning for more once her time at Kaiserworth ended. One way or another she would go into nursing. Nightingale was allowed to visit the Catholic hospitals in Dublin and Paris where she received further training. After numerous setbacks she completed her training in Paris.

Soon Nightingale was superintendent at a ladies’ hospital, where she had her work cut out for her in getting things running smoothly. But Nightingale seemed to be only satisfied when she had a set goal, almost as if she hated being at peace with something. Although the patients loved her, because everything was operational and efficient she was dissatisfied. For all her care of patients, though, Nightingale had a hardness about her, almost to the point of being cruel. In later life she would hasten her devoted, ill friends to death as she pushed them to go beyond what they were capable. She was also at this point in life practically friendless and that was the way she wanted things.

Miss Nightingale at Scutari, 1854 Courtesy Library of Congress

When the Crimean War erupted, the War Office recruited Nightingale to their hospitals in Crimea. The mortality rate was horrendous as disease swept over them. Poor medical care was also helping more to the grave. Nightingale recruited 40 women nurses and headed for Scutari. Nightingale was soon at work in the Barrack Hospital. Inadequate and disorganized, supplies were long in coming. Shortages were also a frequent occurrence. Often time supplies would sit in port aboard ships and rot, because they could not be landed. Other times they sat in storage while soldiers died, because the supplies had not yet been inspected. By late 1854 Nightingale had things functioning a little better. While she had unending duties to attend to, matters were made worse by constant power struggles by other nurses who wished to have the limelight. New nurses that were brought in much of the time did their best to discredit or tear down Nightingale’s work. In fact these other nurses tended to be undisciplined.

While in Balaclava inspecting a hospital, Nightingale caught Crimean fever. Although she began to recover she was left weakened and taken back to Scutari. Upon her recovery Nightingale learned that a nurse had been stealing supplies. Not wanting to cause an uproar the nurse was sent home. Back in England the nurse accused Nightingale of letting stores rot and ‘informed’ the War Office of Nightingale’s other dastardly deeds.

Drunkenness among the soldiers was very severe, and many times the liquor they consumed would kill them. Nightingale sought to correct this by opening a reading room and treating the soldiers like human beings. Officers tended to look on the foot soldiers as animals.The ‘drink shops’ were closed and recreational building set up.

Florence Nightingale, circa 1858 Courtesy Wikipedia

In England Nightingale was becoming popular. A fund had been set up for her to use to educate nurses later on and Queen Victoria had given her a brooch. All of this attention went practically unheeded by Nightingale, who despised fame. Her character had undergone a tremendous transformation from the girl who had imagined herself a heroine. Incidentally, she was cured of her ‘dreaming’.

By 1856 the war was over and Nightingale was in poor health having suffered from sciatica in ‘55, among other things. On July 16th, the last of the Barrack Hospital’s inmates had left. Nightingale’s stint was over in Crimea, but because of her experience there she could not rest. The loss in Crimea had been devastating and it anguished her. Back home she isolated herself and long into the nights she could be heard pacing in her room. She couldn’t let the Crimean disaster be repeated. Reform had to take place in the army, with better medical care implemented. Almost as soon as she got back she was beginning the long road to reform.

Nightingale neglected her health and there were many times when she, and those around her, believed she would die very soon. However she kept on. Although she managed to survive the circumstances many of her friends died one by one all around her. It was distressing and in many aspects Nightingale felt she had been a failure accomplishing very little of what she had set out to do. In 1880 her mother, who she had reconciled with, died. Fanny had lost her sight and her mind. On August 13, 1910 Nightingale followed her parents and sister to the grave. She had lived a hard and illustrious life.


Source: Woodham-Smith, Cecil. Florence Nightingale, 1820-1910.


26 thoughts on ““Worse Than Dust and Nothing”: Florence Nightingale

  1. Fascinating woman. Your post goes well beyond our common knowledge. I’m sure the British Army lost more men to disease than to the Russians. Great job!


    • She was that (“fascinating and complex”)! She was also oddly different in comparison to her contemporaries. While other women were championing women’s rights, Nightingale was completely against feminism. This came as a surprise to me, since she had served in the capacity that she did. Thanks for your comment!


  2. Very interesting, I did not know this story. Thank you for this! This woman was really devoted entirely to others.

    “Worse Than Dust and Nothing” it’s a beautiful sentence!


    • Yes all though throughout the ‘highlights’ of her life she possessed a hard demeanor, those she nursed loved her. This wasn’t so in her earlier life. She was very sensitive, craved attention and was very patient. I guess conflict with her family changed her a bit as she got older. In old age though she seemed to have reverted back to her younger days somewhat. Thanks for reading!


    • Please, not careful to link of my pseudo, “Titanicpeople” is a fake blog. ^^ There was a problem, I could not comment on your articles anymore, if I did not have a WordPress account.


    • Yes, I saw that others people had the same problems on WordPress blogs. It seems that this is not a glitch, but just a new rule of WordPress, I do not know why.


  3. I had no idea that she struggled so. I think that we tend to romanticize her life because everyone thinks of her as this person who created nursing. Placed her on a pedestal…Thanks for such an interesting read. 🙂


    • Nightingale was a very determined person and oddly enough went through much of her life thinking she had not accomplished enough, if anything. Thanks for reading and I’m glad you liked it.


  4. I didn’t know too much about the story behind Florence Nightingale, it certainly is a sad and complex one, and it is unfortunate that she died feeling that she hadn’t accomplished what she wanted.
    I have done a post in the past about that other well-known Crimean war nurse, Mary Seacole, it was a terrible time to be a nurse, that’s for sure.


    • I’ll be reading that post, sounds interesting!

      It seems that Nightingale expectations of herself and others stretched far beyond what was reasonable. I think her later years were the more pleasant of her entire life, although she outlived her family. Thanks for reading!


  5. I’m another one of those people having serious difficulty commenting because of the WordPress ID problem! But – just in case this sticks – I was going to say, interesting post. I have heard that at first her approach was less successful than what had gone before because of the cross-transmission of disease and infection. But she seems to have had the right approach, once these barriers were broken.

    (It’s Diane from Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History, btw!)


    • That’s really good to hear! Nightingale was a thoroughly interesting person. I find her struggles with her imagination very fascinating. There’s been some speculations in the internet community that she was a maldaptive daydreamer.

      She was ahead of her time, no doubt about that. Such struggles she endured to follow her dream.


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