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Miss Florence Nightingale visited the Levy Lecture Series on June 2 via Zoom technology and some dramatic license. Florence was actually Megan Wells, a renowned professional storyteller and actress who has performed at hundreds of Chicagoland venues for the past 40 years.
Sitting in her London bedroom sipping a cup of tea, an aging Florence shared the story of her life as she told the audience about her childhood, her passion for books and mathematics, and her calling to “be of service” by caring for the sick. Her bedroom was also her sick room; she was going blind and “invalided” due to illnesses she had contracted during her work caring for soldiers during the Crimean War. She was dressed in her trademark black clothes – the better to absorb spills – where she was writing articles, preparing lectures for her students at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing, and compiling her research.
She grew up in a wealthy family with two adoring parents, an older sister, and plenty of family members nearby. Her sister and her 27 cousins were her friends and companions. Her parents made sure their two daughters received a good education, primarily so they would have good judgment in order to pick a suitable husband so the family would have an heir, as women could not inherit property and wealth at that time in England.
Florence convinced her father to teach her geometry and algebra, unusual subjects for a young woman to study at that time. She observed patterns and logic in all her activities; she saw “math as a language” that needed to be understood if she was going to succeed in the world.
Florence was inspired to care for the sick because of her own childhood illness. At age 7, she became gravely ill, confined to her bed, feverish, her small body wracked with coughing from “the miasmas,” which was actually whooping cough. The Nightingales were a family of means, so a doctor was sent for and arrived to examine the patient. He applied leaches to her body, bled her, and left without the patient improving. Little Florence’s mother tried to care for her, but had no success. At last, Aunt Patty arrived to help care for her, and quickly took charge.
The difference could not have been more stark. Aunt Patty was professional, calm, truthful. When asked a question, she provided a truthful answer, but her face was a blank slate, devoid of emotion so as not to alarm the patient. She fed Florence a broth and stayed with her until her cough subsided and her fever broke. Florence never forgot how protected she felt under Aunt Patty’s care, and vowed to do the same for others when she grew up.
“Caring for the sick” or “doing charity work” were some of the phrases well-to-do women used to describe what may be described today as nursing. Florence said in the 1800s nursing was considered a vile occupation and hospitals were where one went to die rather than be healed. Nursing consisted primarily of changing bedpans, mopping floors, and once the patient died, washing the linens.
Florence saw the need to improve and professionalize the care for the sick. She began by keeping meticulous records of everything associated with caring for the sick and analyzing her notes for patterns. She recalled how Dr. Snow’s notes during the London cholera epidemic pinpointed the connection between those succumbing to the disease and their use of an infected water pump. Once the pump was taken out of service, the epidemic stopped.
Florence never desired marriage or children, much to her mother’s disappointment. She thrived on and lived for her work. At the time of her death, she had published 365 papers, established a professional nursing school, and become well known and respected far beyond England’s borders.
Ms. Wells delivered a stunning portrayal, which is also available to watch on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.