The Library has digitised its collection of nearly 600 Nightingale letters dating from 1829 to 1905. The Florence Nightingale Digitisation Project, which is in partnership with Boston University and the Florence Nightingale Museum, means that Nightingale’s entire correspondence will be freely available online.
In 1854, age 34, Florence Nightingale led the first team of British female nurses sent to the Crimea war. The Crimean mission was devastating for her health, she nearly died of ‘Crimean fever’, never fully recovered and became an invalid for the rest of her life by age 37. She described herself as ‘a prisoner of her own room’.
But Nightingale did not let the illness burden her, she turned ‘imprisonment’ into a massive correspondence, which together with her network of colleagues, collaborators and advisors helped her fulfil many of her great ideas. The legacy of her work is reflected in her letters.
The original correspondence (MSS.5471-5483) covers almost the eight decades of Florence Nightingale’s life. The letters vary in subject and accordingly reflect a wide variety of recipients. The subjects range from professional concerns such as the Crimean war, reforming nursing practice, Indian sanitation and the use of medical statistics to personal and family matters.
Her letters are both insightful and surprising: in a letter written in 1829, Florence, age 9, puzzles her cousin Henry with the following riddle:
“What can you add to 9 to make 6? For instance a gentleman sent nine ducks to his friend, who carried them stole 3. Now you must know the gentleman wrote the number of ducks on the basket. How could the man alter the number nine into six so that there was no blotting out and so that he was not found out? You must recollect that he added something.”
Can you solve it?
The correspondence is grouped in letters either to particular individuals (MSS.5471-5482) or in date order to various recipients (MS.5483). Some examples are given below.
Her letters to William Farr (1807-1883), a statistician and epidemiologist, reflect their friendship and collaboration on sanitary reform, especially in connection with the Army Sanitary Commission and the Indian Sanitary Commission:
Letters to Sir John Henry Lefroy (1817-1890), an army officer, relate to the reform of the Army Medical Service, military hospitals and nursing. In particular, letters from Balaclava and Scutari where Nightingale and her nurses arrived in 1854, with a full list and details of the nursing establishment there in 1855. This includes a list compiled by Nightingale of nurses who had worked with her up to November 1855, including those no longer with her and the reasons for their departure.
Digitising Nightingale, a one day symposium will be hosted by the Wellcome Library on May 12th 2014 at the Wellcome Trust, 194 years after her birth. Despite being ahead of her time, Nightingale could never imagine that her letters would be freely accessible and treasured all over the world 100 years after her death.
Author: Rada Vlatkovic is Archive Content and Metadata Officer at the Wellcome Library.