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Review: Florence Nightingale Museum in London

The Florence Nightingale Museum celebrates the life and work of one of the world’s most famous nurses. The museum is located within St Thomas’ Hospital near the banks of the river Thames opposite the Houses of Parliament. The Florence Nightingale Museum collection is made up of almost 3000 artefacts relating to the life, work and legacy of Florence Nightingale and attracts visitors from all over the world who want to learn more about the ‘Lady with the Lamp’.

The origins of the collection were artefacts acquired by Dame Alicia Lloyd-Still during her time as Matron of St Thomas’ Hospital in 1913-1937. The collection was first publicly displayed for the centenary of the Crimean War in 1954 at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, then again on the centenary of the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in 1960, and the 150th anniversary of Florence’s birth in 1970. The collection was transferred into the care of the Florence Nightingale Museum Trust in 1983, who then went on to open the museum on the site of the original Nightingale Training School in 1989.

Florence Nightingale is most famous for being the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ who organised the nursing of sick and wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, however the museum provides plenty of evidence of the way that Nightingale’s ideas and reforms have influenced modern healthcare.

The museum displays begins by looking at Florence’s ‘Early years’, she was born into a fairly wealthy middle-class family and soon began to show an aptitude for academic studies especially mathematics. Florence believed she had a ‘calling’ from God was destined to do something important with her life. This background gave Florence a strong sense of moral duty to help the poor and gradually began to consider that nursing may be a path to fulfil her ambitions. Paid nursing at this time had a poor reputation at this time and was generally considered a job for elderly women.

What often set Florence apart from many others was her practical approach and she read anything she could find about health and hospitals before persuading her parents to allow her to take three months’ nursing training at an hospital in Dusseldorf. When Florence was 33, she became superintendent of a hospital for ‘gentlewomen’ in Harley Street in London. However it was to be the Crimean War which would make her reputation.

The displays in the museum tell the story of how Florence was invited by the Minister of War to oversee the introduction of female nurses into the military hospitals in Turkey. With a party of 38 nurses, Florence arrived in Scutari and began to organise the hospitals to improve supplies of food, blankets and beds, as well as the general conditions and cleanliness. For centuries, soldiers were more likely to die from disease than conflict when serving overseas but little was done to deal with these issues.

By introducing the new measures at Scutari, the mortality rates declined significantly and British soldiers showed their respect for Florence by giving her the nickname ‘Lady of the Lamp’. The introduction of female nurses to the military hospitals was considered an outstanding success and Florence returned to Britain a heroine. It is this image of the ‘Lady of the Lamp’ that is ingrained in popular culture, however this overshadows her later work which many consider to be even more important. One of her greatest achievements was to transform nursing into a respectable profession for women and in 1860, she established the first professional training school for nurses, the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas’ Hospital.

For the rest of her life, she campaigned tirelessly to improve health standards, publishing over 200 books, reports and pamphlets on hospital planning and organisation. It is said that she wrote over 13000 letters as part of her campaigns and reforms. Some of the books, reports, pamphlets are included in the displays including her most famous work Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not.

Despite often being confined to her sick bed, Florence used many of her contacts including Queen Victoria to push for reforms and used statistics to provide evidence of her arguments. Despite her ill health, Florence lived till she was 90, she died in 1910.

The museum looks at Florence Nightingale’s legacy by featuring a set of ten oil paintings by French artist Victor Tardieu, which depict a field hospital during the First World War. The lesson learned in the Crimea were applied in latter wars to save millions of soldiers from disease and death from injuries.

Visitors walking around the museum may be surprised to come across a stuffed owl and dog, Athena was Florence Nightingale’s beloved pet owl which she rescued in Athens in 1850 and used to put in the pocket of her apron. The dog is called Jack and belonged to Edith Cavell, Jack helped soldiers escape from captivity during the First World War.

The Florence Nightingale Museum tells the story of a remarkable woman who transformed the nursing profession in the 19th century. The museum illustrates the life of Florence Nightingale with attractive displays, full of interesting objects that show how modern healthcare was influenced by a woman who used her celebrity to save millions of lives.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information and tickets , visit the Museum website here

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