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Was Florence Nightingale ‘deluded’ and ‘power hungry’, and why do some scientists miss out when it comes to honours? Taking on just these subjects, two articles in the latest issue of History Today address the waxing and waning reputations of key figures in the history of nursing, and in the story of penicillin.

Florence Nightingale. Wellcome Images No. V0006570.

Florence Nightingale. Wellcome Images No. V0006570.

Lynn McDonald’s article, ‘Nursing’s Bitter Rivalry’, takes issue with some recent accounts of nursing history that promote Jamaican-born Mary Seacole’s role in the nursing innovations of the nineteenth century over that of Florence Nightingale.

Seacole independently followed Nightingale to the Crimea during the Crimean War of 1854-1856, and tended the sick and injured on its battlefields. She also set up a ‘British Hotel’, advertised as a ‘mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. Today increasingly praised as a pioneering force in nursing, a statue of Seacole is to be errected outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London, a hospital strongly associated with Nightingale, and where she founded the world’s first secular school for nurses in 1860. As Seacole’s reputation has risen so Nightingale’s has come under attack, with studies questioning the effectiveness of her care in the Crimea. However, McDonald argues that Seacole’s nursing experience has been greatly overstated, and that Nightingale’s achievements shine as brightly as ever.

Penicillin mould.  Wellcome Images No. N0013876.

Penicillin mould.
Wellcome Images No. N0013876.

The second article, ‘The Quiet Cultivator’ by Malcolm Murfett, draws attention to the work of Norman Heatley, whose papers are held by the Wellcome Library. Heatley was overlooked by both the Nobel Prize committee and the Royal Society, but his contribution to the capture, purification, and production of penicillin was of huge importance to its eventual mass-production.

Both of these articles can be read in the Wellcome Library, either in the print or online editions of the magazine, along with the full online archive of History Today.

We also hold a large collection of Nightingale’s correspondence and the papers of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), in which a great amount of material relating to the Crimean War can be found.


Chris Hassan is Medical Humanities Development Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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