Shedding New Light on Florence Nightingale

Author Judith Cromwell ’57’s latest biography shows a different side of the legendary founder of modern nursing

by Jane Falla


Judith Lissauer Cromwell ’57 likes a good challenge, which comes in handy as a lover of history. As a student, Cromwell came to college already deeply interested in the subject, but it was at Smith where she cemented her understanding of what it means to be a historian. She went on to earn her doctorate in history from New York University, followed by a 25-year career in business.Judith Cromwell


After leaving Wall Street, Cromwell knew exactly what she wanted to do: pursue her longtime wish to write a biography of Russian princess Dorothea Lieven, a project that took 10 years. Her decision to follow that up with a biography on Florence Nightingale came when Cromwell chanced upon a comment that publication of 200 of Nightingale’s letters raised interesting questions but no definitive answers. That was just the kind of challenge to spark Cromwell’s curiosity.


Here, the author and historian shares further details on her latest book, Florence Nightingale, Feminist (McFarland & Company, 2013), a six-year effort.


Beyond the persona

“Nightingale was an inspiration to aspiring women in all fields. She was more than a pioneering nurse, sanitarian, statistician and public health professional. Some of the better biographies only treat Nightingale through the Crimean War, and that’s understandable, but she lived for 50 years after that and did a huge amount in that time.”


The evolution of a feminist

“While Nightingale still epitomizes the nurturing female, hindsight shows that she superseded that stereotype. She established a profession for women—one that suited them and proved acceptable within the context of that time. That was a pioneering accomplishment and anchors Nightingale among the founders of modern feminism. In her early teens, Nightingale identified what she called an ‘evil in the world’—the fact that women had no control over their lives. She empowered women like herself—women who wanted a profession and wanted to use their brains.”


Transforming a profession

“Nightingale changed the concept of hospital nurse from drunken menial to medical professional. Yes, in the Crimean War she made her rounds at night carrying a lamp, and she ministered to thousands of sick and wounded soldiers. But she did much more than that. Starting with basic cleanliness, she was a genius at organizing hospitals into model medical institutions.”


Elevating women’s status

“The Nightingale School for Nurse Training was the world’s first school to give organized, scientific nurse training at a time when only well-to-do women were allowed to be educated. Within a generation her school made nursing accepted and a well-paid career for women when they had few, if any, options to earn their way to independence.”


A wealth of contributions

“Beyond the scope of her achievements in nursing, Nightingale pioneered sanitation and public health in both the United Kingdom and in British India, which then included Pakistan and Bangladesh. She was also the first woman to be elected as a member of The International Statistical Congress, and she was the first statistician to present data in a pie chart. Nightingale also wrote books, letters and essays. She was a mathematician and spoke five languages fluently.”


Inspired activism

“Nightingale wasn’t a rebel. For example, she was asked to put her name to the women’s suffrage movement and she declined, saying she didn’t have enough time and was too sick. She felt that focusing on her work behind the scenes would effect more immediate change. Her thought was ‘I am basically doing something for women right now.’”


The human side of Nightingale

“Nightingale was not a saint, and neither was she a devil or a power-hungry egotist, which some biographers suggest. She was shaped by the central conflict in her life: how to recognize the deep desire to please her strong-willed, conventional mother with an equally deep yearning to fulfill her dream. Despite several proposals of marriage, and although one man waited nine years for her, Nightingale had a strong sense that she was put on earth to serve the poor and the sick. She also had a sense of humor, with a dry wit and a lot of charm. She didn’t suffer fools gladly. She was very demanding of her colleagues, but they were devoted to her. She had close friends of both sexes and was really a warm, loving person.”


An unconventional leader

Nightingale had many friends in the government and for several years directed two government departments—the war office and the India office—behind the scenes, as a woman could never assume that role. Still, there were plenty of people in those offices who hated her and didn’t want a woman interfering in their turf. She faced that kind of opposition as the first female nurse ever to set foot in a British army hospital.”


Up next

“I’ve already started working on another biography—Queen Anne of England—who reigned at the beginning of the 18th century. It’s a very meaty topic, with many questions. It’ll be a long-term project.”


Researching influential women

“Queen Anne reigned during a seminal period of British history. She was an ambitious woman who knew her own mind, but it was her birth that made her queen, so intriguing questions revolve around her true role in influencing men and events. Dorothea Lieven wanted to be more than a wife and mother—more, indeed, than a mere princess, and she became a diplomatic force. And Florence Nightingale deplored how conventional society caused the waste of female talent. All three women aspired to use their abilities—use them the way Smith taught us—and still teaches us—to do.”


Jane Falla is associate editor, alumnae communications