Worship at the Abbey

Address given at a Service to Commemorate the Life of Florence Nightingale 2012

9 May 2012 at 18:00 pm

The Right Reverend and Right Honourable The Lord Carey of Clifton PC, Archbishop of Canterbury 1991-2002

I am delighted to have the opportunity to share in this Celebration of the life of Florence Nightingale and the wonderful work of the nursing profession. As husband of a former registered nurse, brother to two others, and father of a nurse practitioner, you could say that nursing runs in our family. But I also preside over a school network which owns Embley Park where Florence Nightingale grew up. All this makes my wife and I feel very much at home in this service where we gather to honour a great lady who became a legend in her own time. Shakespeare said of greatness: ‘Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.'

Certainly Florence achieved greatness and to some degree greatness was also thrust upon her through the circumstances of the time. Her early life did not suggest that, from a rather pampered existence in a wealthy family, that a great future lay ahead of her. Her life could have ended as indulgent and spoiled, were it not for the fact that Florence sought with all her heart a life that had meaning and purpose. At the age of 17 she had a kind of conversion experience that she was being called to do something special and significance. We believe it happened in the grounds of Embley Park. In a note she wrote: ‘On Feb 7th 1837 God spoke to me and called me to his service’. It was to be a very long time before she found out what that service was going to be. But gradually, she was drawn to the awful conditions in English hospitals. Public hospitals were institutions that the wealthy shunned as places of wretchedness, degradation and squalor. Wards were large often accommodating 60 or so people with beds crammed everywhere. The nurses who cared for them were often drunkards, not able to read or write, and, it is said, often with questionable morals. But it was not in Florence Nightingale’s temperament to worry what others thought, thus it dawned on her that hospitals desperately needed reforming. Gradually she was drawn into the battle to change these conditions. She had found her vocation.

We have no idea what her life would have turned out without a war turning up. No doubt she would have made a success of her life. But it is often new circumstances that determine the trajectory of our lives. Perhaps you have found this to be true in your life. But the Crimean War catapulted her into taking a stand against the War Office and leading politicians of her day. A journalist from The Times brought back a report from the battle zone that indicated that the much vaunted British Army was in very great trouble with more soldiers dying of disease than those dying in battle.

Something had to be done and Florence knew someone who could do it – it was herself. The rest of the story is well known and has been told again and again. With 38 nurses she went to the battleground, and for the first six months they met opposition, wilful ignorance and condescending male attitudes.

The nurses poured themselves out in service to the men and as they did so attitudes changed because better hygiene, better food, warm clothing began to make some difference. But it was a slow journey, time and gain cholera swept through the camps. No sooner had they removed one corpse from a bed and replaced it with a very ill man, that he died too. No one seemed to realise that the bed itself was contaminated. But the soldiers knew that Miss Nightingale was on their side, and the legend of the lady of the lamp was born.

By this time, in her early 30s she was a formidable young woman quite prepared to take on the Generals and other leaders - her forceful personality, fierce compassion and sharp intellect routed them all and they knew it. But there was another element that must not be forgotten. Miss Nightingale was at the forefront of statistical research- indeed, a pioneer of it. Everywhere she went she wrote down facts in her note books – facts about the number of deaths, facts about nutrition, facts about how long people stayed in hospital beds– facts, indeed, about anything that seemed relevant to the fight for life and against death.

She returned from that war a changed person. She had been herself so ill from contact with dying men that her own health suffered, but the beautiful aristocratic lady was now a determined, well researched and troublesome woman who, in the battle against bureaucrats in the Army and public life, was prepared to take no prisoners.

What is her legacy?

It lies in nursing today. She transformed nursing, beginning with St Thomas’s Hospital, London, and continuing in many of the London hospitals and throughout the world. She pioneered training for nurses and insisted that those who bore her name had the best preparation they could possibly have.

Her legacy lies in fighting for the common soldier who at the time of Miss Nightingale was seen as a brutal, violent animal kept like a fierce animal to keep the enemy at bay, but who was not welcome in civilised society. She changed all that.

Her legacy lies in statistical research and the necessity to compare, study and analyse before making decisions.

Her legacy lies in being a champion for the rights of women, even though, curiously, she didn’t seem to like other women! She was against women doctors and refused to join a campaign for electoral rights for women. She often attacked women for complaining too much but that was probably because, like Mrs Thatcher, she enjoyed the company of men best. Undeniably, she showed in a predominantly male world, that a bright, capable woman can hold her own with anybody. She would no doubt have agreed with the saying that ‘ Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not very difficult’. It wasn’t in her case.

And the fight continues today. The nursing profession now includes men as well as women. Florence Nightingale would marvel and rejoice at conditions in our hospitals but I would venture to say that there would be things the great lady would question. Yes, we are blessed in this country with the National Health Service but it is only as good as the people who staff it. At the centre of great and good medical care are you, the nurses, who more than anyone else are nearest to the patients in need. Florence Nightingale reminds us that nursing is a calling from God, a vocation, to serve others sacrificially and devotedly. And this calling is one that the nation should not take for granted but honour and remunerate in a responsible and caring fashion.

And Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, would I believe be delighted with the Foundation that bears her name and the scholarships you provide to drive up standards. I think she would urge us all to fight against unthinking bureaucracy which puts the institution before people: to fight for higher standards, to fight for the nobility of your profession but, above all, let the light of your lamp – because you too hold a lamp - reveal your compassion and care for others.

That is what this celebration is all about.