In the Media: Nightingale Letters on Permanent Display

Oct 3, 2013, 5:00 PM

This is part of the October 2013 issue of Sharing Nursing's Knowledge.

Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, died more than a century ago. But a new exhibit is bringing her words back to life.

“The sufferings of the Wounded are insupportably ghastly & hideous,” one of Nightingale’s letters says. “To me who have seen the thing in all its ghastly reality on a small scale, tho’ we called it a colorful calamity at the time, to think of it now multiplied in all its horrors on a scale which could never have been calculated upon—I assure you that it haunts me day & night. I feel as if I must set off to do what I can at the front. I think of nothing else.”

These words are from a letter she wrote during the Crimean War that is now on display at the School of Nursing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The exhibit includes 50 letters written between 1853 and 1893 (when Nightingale was ages 33 to 73) and covers topics such as hospitals, health care, nursing matters, sanitary conditions, and charitable contributions.

The letters are “unique” because they “span a time in which little is known about Nightingale,” UAB Archivist Pat Cleveland said in a video about the exhibit.

The interactive Barrett Brock MacKay Florence Nightingale Exhibit, which went on permanent display at the UAB School of Nursing over the summer, features reproductions and digital images housed on tablet computers. In addition to the letters, it includes a newspaper clipping, a photograph, and a print of a painting of Nightingale. Most of the letters were written to J. Gillham Hewlett, MD, a physician and health officer who served as sanitary commissioner of India.

“Through this new exhibit we are fulfilling our responsibility to share the content with the rest of the world,” UAB School of Nursing Dean Doreen Harper, PhD, said in an article published this summer on the UAB website. “In fact, Nightingale was a prominent force in the creation of global health care and global nursing, and these letters offer countless leadership lessons relevant to the future of nursing and health care.”

Lawrence Reynolds, MD, a radiologist from Alabama, purchased the letters from a New York book store in 1951 and donated most of them to UAB in 1958. Others were acquired after his death.

“The world needs to see the letters,” Cleveland says in the video, adding: “Students and faculty and others can use this information for research, as a teaching tool, [or] just for little kids to come see and learn about the founder of modern-day nursing.”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.