You probably know Florence Nightingale as the “The Lady With The Lamp”: the almost mythical, near-saintly nurse who in the 1850s saved many wounded soldiers by setting up the first modern hospital for them. In many ways, she laid the foundations for professional nursing.
She also was a great mathematician (the first one to use pie chart statistics in her reports) and a prolific writer (not just about nursing).
And she was, for most of her long life, suffering from depressions.
This last aspect is often omitted from the rosy-colored stories about her. But maybe we can learn something from it. I’ve already given a few sad historical examples here of people who lost their battle against depression. So this time, I wanted an historical example of someone who won that battle – and I think Florence Nightingale will do fine.
It is interesting to compare her with artist and model Elizabeth Siddal, who figured here a few weeks ago. Both were born in the 1820s, but their lives were very different. Siddal started from a lower-class background; Nightingale came from a rich upper-class family. Siddal had a poetic, glamorous presence; Nightingale was goal-oriented and practical. Siddal had tumultuous love affairs and a romantic marriage; Nightingale rejected marriage proposals, staying single all her life. Siddal died young and tragically from an overdose; Nightingale died peacefully in 1910 at the age of 90.
But there are parallels, too. Most important, both refused to accept the dull standard role models that were the norm for women in the Victorian period. They both tried hard to find their own way in society, to break the restrictive rules of convention, to create a more original and more meaningful position for themselves. And in that, they were successful: in the 1850s, each became a celebrity in her own right.
Also in both cases, their celebrity status itself was instantly romanticized by admirers. After The Times newspaper was the first to describe her habit of making nightly rounds in the hospital “with a little lamp in her hand”, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow introduced the phrase “The Lady with the Lamp” in his 1857 poem Santa Filomena. A typical romanticized rendering of the Nightingale story is the 1857 painting “The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the wounded at Scutari” by Jerry Barrett. Here, Nightingale’s face is the one that lights up among all the others:
If you want a complete overview of Nightingale’s life and work, the Wikipedia page about her is a good starting point. The only thing I want to highlight here, is how she managed to save herself from the claws of depression.
In her twenties, Nightingale became depressed; this was probably worsened by the fact that her family was strongly opposed to her taking up the active role in nursing that she already aspired to as a way out of the rigid, meaningless social role that people expected from upper-class women. She had a few positive experiences (especially when visiting the German Lutheran hospital community at Kaiserswerth, that became an example to her) but also deep depressions.
In May 1850, having read some of the very somber poems by William Cowper, she wrote in her diary that she could identify with his “deep despondency”; and at Christmas Eve she wrote: “In my thirty first year, I can see nothing desirable but death… I cannot understand it. I am ashamed to understand it.” She also wrote “My present life is suicide” and “Oh weary days – oh evenings that seem never to end – for how many years I have watched that drawing room clock… it is not the misery, the unhappiness that I feel is so insupportable, but I feel this habit, this disease gaining ground upon me and no hope, no help. This is the sting of death. Why do I wish to leave this world? God knows I do not suspect a heaven beyond – but that He will set me down in St. Giles, at a Kaiserswerth, there to find my work.”
In the next two years, she managed to turn herself around. She returned to Kaiserswerth and from there wrote in a touchingly reassuring letter to her mother that she felt no longer suicidal: “I find the deepest interest in everything here and am so well in body and mind… I really should be sorry now to leave life. I know you will be glad to hear, dearest mother, this.”
She also began sorting out her thoughts by writing an over 800 pages-long and somewhat rambling collection of essays for herself, later partially published for a wider public as Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth. Maybe just because of the title, some people have later interpreted her turnaround as a kind of religious conversion. I think that is wrong.
More probably, two other things saved her.
Among historians, there is a theory that in the 19th century, people found suicide even more disturbing than murder. An act of murder, in a way, still fitted in the over all Victorian view of human nature, while suicide was conflicting with it in many more troubling ways. For example, suicide was felt to be a worse crime (and formally it was a crime at that time) because unlike with a murder, a suicide also meant that the perpetrator cowardly escaped from final judgment by others. Nightingale may have shared such deeply-rooted conservative moral views, and perhaps this can have helped her to resist her suicidal feelings.
But most important is that she actually did muster the courage and energy to take up the work that she felt she needed so much. In describing this, Nightingale used a starvation metaphor. She told how she had been starving by lack of a real meaning-of-life, and how she finally discovered that this meaningful nursing work was in fact the only possible kind of food that would save her from this deadly starvation. Once she realized that to her this was the only way to stay alive, it gave her the power to carry on. She no longer asked for God to “set her down in St. Giles”; she did it herself. This also became her message to other Victorian women in her Suggestions for Thought: try doing the same!
All this, and the tremendous successes that followed, did not mean that for the rest of her life she was entirely free of depressions.
Thirty years later, in 1881, she confessed in a letter to her friend Mary Clarke: “I cannot remember the time when I have not longed for death. After Sidney Herbert’s death and Clough’s death in 1861, 20 years ago, for years and years I used to watch for death as no sick man ever watched for the morning. It is strange that now bereft of all, I crave for it less.”
It was her work, the sense of being useful to others, that kept her going.
– The Florence Nightingale story has evolved into a common myth; about the positive function of such myths, see here.
The Nightingale myth has left countless traces in modern culture: including music. Perhaps the best known song about her is Lady with the Lamp by the late Grateful Dead guitarist/singer Jerry Garcia:
(click the “Play” button – if it does not work, install Flash)
• tip: I’m afraid that this time I cannot help sounding a little like a Victorian moralist myself. But why should we deny there can be some helpful truth in such now-conventional moral ideas? So here it is:
If your depression is so bad that your life seems totally meaningless, try to make your life meaningful to a few other people. By doing so, you will make it more meaningful to yourself again, too. This is what Florence Nightingale did (on a larger scale). For her, it worked.
• footnote 1: The 1857 Jerry Barrett painting “The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the wounded at Scutari” is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The man you see looking in through the window above Nightingale is the painter himself.
• footnote 2: An edited selection from Nightingale’s Suggestions for Thought – including the key essay Cassandra about how women ought to give meaning to their own life – can be found at Amazon.