Students Discover Florence Nightingale

By Justine Sundaram

During the week of February 8th, Professor Stacey Barone's NU060 class got a chance to look at some important primary sources from the history of nursing for an extra credit assignment. Among the items on display were: the first syringe to administer insulin in New England from the New England Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing Collection; a cap that would have been worn by nurses in the 1930s - 1950s at the St. Elizabeth's Hospital School of Nursing; letters written by Florence Nightingale; and a first edition of Florence Nightingale's book Notes on Nursing.

Florence Nightingale

Etching of Florence Nightingale
Photo by Kevin Tringale

The most meaningful pieces in this small display were the letters written by Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). Many things that we take for granted - cleanliness of hospitals and the importance of observing patients - were not common knowledge in her time. And, like many nursing students today, Nightingale resisted pressure from family to become a doctor because she truly wanted to make advances in the field of nursing.

One of the Nightingale letters from the Dolan Collection, dated July 23, 1881, offers a glimpse into the student-teacher relationship between Alice Fisher and Florence Nightingale. Alice Fisher was an early nursing pioneer. Born in England in 1839, she enrolled in the Nightingale Training School Home for Nurses at St. Thomas' Hospital, London in 1875 and went on to become a Nightingale nurse of unusual ability. In this letter, Nightingale is eager to speak with her former student again. She also asks if Fisher knows any nursing students who might be interested in enrolling at Nightingale's School for Nurses at St. Thomas' Hospital, "We have always, of course, many more applications than we can admit, but, also of course, not always of the right calibre (sic)."


July 23, 1881 letter from Florence Nightingale to Alice Fisher
Photo by Kevin Tringale

The envelope for this letter is addressed to "Miss Fisher/Addenbrooke's Hospital/Cambridge". From the entry on Fisher in American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary (O'Neill Reference RT34 .A44 1988), it's evident that Nightingale wrote this particular letter after Fisher had left the Nightingale Training School and had become the matron of Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, England. In October 1884, Fisher went to America to become the Lady Superintendant of Nurses at the Philadelphia Hospital. In 1888, she died of heart disease in Philadelphia. This letter is a wonderful piece of Nursing history, carefully preserved and made accessible in the Reading Room at the John J. Burns Library.

The Nightingale letters owned by the Burns Library are part of the Josephine Dolan History of Nursing Collection, 1855-1987. A Nursing historian and teacher who spent her life advocating for the preservation of primary sources in Nursing, Dr. Dolan donated these letters, along with other teaching materials and artifacts, to the John J. Burns Library in 1988 and 1990. The bulk of Ms. Dolan's papers are now held at the Dodd Research Center of University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut; however the Burns Library's small collection is still fascinating.


Syringe circa 1922 from New England Deaconess Hospital
Photo by Kevin Tringale

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of past events. They are generally created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events when they occurred. They can include such things as diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos and newspapers articles. While these letters and others like it are very interesting in and of themselves, primary source documents like these often require you to do background research so that you have a better idea of the circumstances, current events and concerns of the time in which they were written. Doing this background research makes you feel a bit like a detective putting the clues of an old case together.

Interested in looking at more Florence Nightingale letters? Visit the Burns Library and look at the Josephine Dolan History of Nursing Collection, 1855-1987. Also recommended Letters of Florence Nightingale in the History of Nursing Archive, Special Collections, Boston University Libraries (O'Neill Stacks RT37.N5 A4 1974). This book publishes the large collection of Florence Nightingale letters available at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Primary sources are accessible in many different ways, so don't hesitate to visit the Burns Reading Room or call or e-mail me if you have any questions.

Justine Sundaram, Reference Librarian, Bibliographer, Burns Library