Florence Nightingale was born two hundred years ago this month. ‘The Lady of the Lamp’ the title she earned during the Crimean War, revolutionized nursing completely.
Nursing Before Florence
Before Florence Nightingale took on the occupation of nursing, transforming it to a a vocation it was not so much a profession but a poorly paid employment option. Nurses were usually old women, who took it on as means to support themselves when there were few jobs options open to them. ‘Nurses’ were almost always from lower ends of society, received little or no training and were noted for bad habits and their careless attitude towards the sick. If the infirm did not have it bad enough and had to go to hospital they found themselves in overcrowded unsanitary institutions, that did little to alleviate their suffering. In his 1844-45 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens captured the stereotype of a nurse all too well in the character of Sarah Gamp.
The face of Mrs. Gamp — the nose in particular — was somewhat red and swollen, and it was difficult to enjoy her society without becoming conscious of a smell of spirits. Like most persons who have attained to great eminence in their profession, she took to hers very kindly; insomuch that, setting aside her natural predilections as a woman, she went to a lying-in or a laying-out with equal zest and relish.
“When this book was first published, I was given to understand, by some authorities, that the Watertoast Association and eloquence were beyond all bounds of belief. Therefore I record the fact that all that portion of Martin Chuzzlewit’s experiences is a literal paraphrase of some reports of public proceedings in the United States (especially of the proceedings of a certain Brandywine Association), which were printed in the Times Newspaper in June and July, 1843—at about the time when I was engaged in writing those parts of the book; and which remain on the file of the Times Newspaper, of course.
In all my writings, I hope I have taken every available opportunity of showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor. Mrs Sarah Gamp was, four-and-twenty years ago, a fair representation of the hired attendant on the poor in sickness. The hospitals of London were, in many respects, noble Institutions; in others, very defective. I[…]”Excerpt From: Charles Dickens. “Martin Chuzzlewit.” iBooks.
“She was a fat old woman, this Mrs Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye, which she had a remarkable power of turning up, and only showing the white of it. Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked. She wore a very rusty black gown, rather the worse for snuff, and a shawl and bonnet to correspond.”
Excerpt From: Charles Dickens. “Martin Chuzzlewit.” iBooks.