Animals, History, Military

Florence Nightingale: The Lady With the … Cats?

If Florence Nightingale were still alive, she’d have been 199 years old in 2019. She was born on May 12th, 1820, just a few short months after Mad King George (of American Revolution fame) breathed his last. By the time she died on August 13, 1910, George V (the current Queen’s grandfather) was on the throne, the England of her youth had vanished forever, and what had taken its place was about to be rocked to its foundations by the First World War.

If anyone might have achieved her bicentennial birthday, it would have been Miss Nightingale. She was determined, cantankerous, precocious, intellectually gifted (she was a brilliant mathematician with a bent for statistics, who popularized the “pie chart” as a visual aid in making her points), difficult, stubborn, opinionated, smart, a prodigious writer, and a woman who never took “no” for an answer without testing the bounds of the proposition herself. I’ve always admired her greatly. I’m not sure she’d have been a comfortable person to have as a friend, but I think she’d have been a very good and very loyal one.

She certainly wasn’t, in modern terms, a “feminist.” She liked men, liked the company of men, considered a few men her very good friends, and dismissed the burgeoning suffragette movement of her later life, writing “I have never found one woman who has altered her life by one iota for me or my opinions.” But she also disliked what she regarded as the contrived uselessness of many Victorian females, and promoted an energetic and thoughtful role for women, in service to their country and their fellow man. In a revealing comment about her faith, she also wrote:

“If I could give you information of my life, it would be to show how a woman of very ordinary ability has been led by God in strange and unaccustomed paths to do In His service what He has done in her. And if I could tell you all, you would see how God has done all, and I nothing.”

Nevertheless, the “strange and unaccustomed paths” she was led in changed her chosen field of nursing forever, and saved countless lives–from her statistical research and presentations demonstrating that the catastrophic death rates in British army hospitals were exacerbated by poor drainage, contaminated food and water, overcrowding and bad ventilation, to her work in the Crimea and in establishing sanitary practices and care in hospitals throughout the Middle East and Britain. Before she died, her voice was recorded for posterity and is saved in the British Library Sound Archive. Here is Florence Nightingale, originally recorded in 1890, when she was seventy years old, saying

“When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava, and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale”

I think there was another point I was going to make here. Hang on a sec while I try and remember what on earth it was … Oh, yes! Cats! Florence Nightingale loved cats. She might have been the greatest “crazy cat lady” of the Victorian era, having, by all accounts sixteen or seventeen at a time, and upwards of seventy or so over the course of her long life. She believed that “cats possess more sympathy and feeling than human beings,” and that they “observe you so much better than talking beings and know so much better what you are thinking.”

The story goes that Florence’s affinity for felines was formed in the Crimea when, desperate to reduce the hordes of rats running free throughout the hospital, a soldier presented her with a cat. Problem solved, and Florence remained grateful to the tiny tigers for the rest of her life.

She spent much of her later life in ill-health, in her house full of cats, feeding them individually from china plates on her dining-room table, and letting them roam free while she wrote–many of her manuscripts display splodges and blodges which (one hopes) are from little kitties dipping their paws in the inkwell and then walking all over her papers. (I first found out about Florence Nightingale’s fascination with cats from a poster I hung in my college dorm room which averred that she would, in her old age, complain about the mysterious stains that kept appearing on the ceiling–and that none of her friends or any of the help had the nerve to tell her where they were coming from!)

She spent her last years in a small cottage, mostly bedridden, looking out over her pretty garden, and with her beloved cats at her side and on her pillow. Included among them was her favorite cat of all–Mr. Bismark of whom she said, “he is the most sensitively affectionate of cats, very gentle, who never makes a mistake.”

In wrapping up, I’ll just say that I think that Florence Nightingale, a woman who was sometimes disappointed in her fellow human beings, never felt that emotion when considering her cats, and she made generous provision for them all in her will.

What? You want more? Dogs? You want dogs, too? So needy. Good grief. Let me see what I can come up with. Oh, here we are:

Did you know that Florence Nightingale became interested in nursing because of a dog? Well, she did! In 1837, when she was seventeen years old, she discovered that Cap, a dog belonging to a local shepherd, had been the victim of some young boys throwing stones. The shepherd thought Cap’s leg was broken and decided to hang him. (Ugh.) Florence and a local clergyman visited Cap, and determined that his leg was not broken, just badly bruised. Florence treated Cap’s leg with warm compresses and persuaded the shepherd to wait a few days before carrying out the sentence. Cap recovered quite rapidly under Florence’s tender care, and all was well.

A night or two later, Florence had a dream in which she believed God called her on a mission to heal others. After a few go-rounds with her father, who wasn’t wild about the idea, she entered a program which today we might call something like a “Masters in Public Health.” It wasn’t until several years later that she began to fulfill her mission, by training as a nurse and beginning the career that was to cement her place in history. (This story is told in more detail here, in Psychology Today.)

So. There it is. Cats and a dog. Good enough?

Happy Trails! (Wait. I think that’s more to do with horses. Oh, well…)

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