Today is famous nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday. Her life is being celebrated across the world during 2020 although the coronavirus pandemic means that many planned events have had to be cancelled or postponed.
Through the course of this week, we’ll be posting on Florence’s connections with Derbyshire and how her story is influencing people today.
While we are in lockdown, not only are staff working from home, but several of our regular volunteers have also had the opportunity to work on projects that might not otherwise have arisen. Roger is our longest-serving volunteer, and you will have heard about his other projects through the blog. His latest project is especially timely as it has involved transcribing in full 88 letters written by Florence Nightingale and purchased for £2,000 back in 1982. The transcripts will ultimately be added to the online catalogue (reference D2546), but in the meantime, here are some insights into the life of Florence as told by Roger:
The collection (Treasure No. 39) contains letters written between 1876 and 1887, representing a portion of the correspondence between Florence Nightingale and Christopher B C Dunn, a medical practitioner living in Crich from 1862 until his death in 1892. We have only one side of this correspondence: none of Christopher Dunn’s letters to Florence Nightingale are known to have survived, so in that sense Florence Nightingale’s perspective prevails. The rhetoric of the letters can be regarded as delicately polite, at times deferential, and respectful of the professional status of the doctor:
Do you wish your Patient’s hair to be shaved or cut short? Would you say whether he must not leave off the cotton Jersey next his skin?
Florence Nightingale aligns herself with Christopher Dunn as a fellow professional:
I am very much obliged to you for your report of our Patients.
The letters may also be read, perhaps, as leaving Christopher Dunn in no doubt about what was expected of him:
Could you be so very good as to have a Water-bed hired or ordered at once for Mrs Limb; and send me the Acct? I am giving you this trouble but I hardly know where one is to be had.
On occasion he was expected to act almost as Florence Nightingale’s local agent; Mr Acraman being vicar of Crich:
I hasten to send you a Cheque for your Qr Acc [quarterly account] for the people to whom you are so kind & to thank you for your kindness. I venture to ask you to be so good as to give £2. 2 (which I have added to the Cheque) to Mr Acraman for his school subscription; for which he wrote to me. I must apologise both you & to him for this unceremonious way of doing it.
Florence wrote these letters in her role as benefactor to the community of Lea and Holloway in general and to a number of individual residents in particular. She commissioned Christopher Dunn to give diagnoses, treatments and medical oversight. She paid for medical attention, including in some cases meeting the cost of hospital admission. She provided some individuals with a weekly supplement of nourishing food. Many local people enjoyed her generous individually tailored provision:
I have now (this morning) received your kind letter. And I will trouble you about Milk & meat & such things as you kindly order for our charges. On meat are Sisters Allen Louisa Peach Mrs Broomhead Widow Barton Widow Brown. Of the two last, Widow Barton’s was only to be for the winter months. Widow Brown’s only for her illness. Both would stop on March 31. I observe from your letter that good Widow Pearson has been ill. Would you like her Meat to continue a month longer?
Florence did not limit her interventions to medical matters. She took a much broader view of her obligation. She asked Christopher Dunn to take action or to give advice about what might be called issues of public health and community well-being, including tainted water supply and inadequate household heating; relief of financial poverty and the establishment and maintenance of a coffee house in Whatstandwell intended to reduce excessive patronage of a public house. She sought to remain well informed, even when living in London or visiting her sister in Buckinghamshire. She can be regarded as having, in modern parlance, pulled strings: involving local men of influence such as William Yeomans, a senior employee of the Nightingale Estate, but also a long-serving Poor Law Guardian and local councillor, and Robert Wildgoose, manager of Lea Mills, a significant local employer:
Would you kindly remember me to Mrs Swann and tell her I have not succeeded (I hardly expected it) in finding Patty Cottrell a suitable place. I hope she has, for Mr Wildgoose has promised in that prospect not to take her on at the Mill.
She also expected, perhaps required, Christopher Dunn to provide her with information about individuals – aspects of their behaviour as well as their health; and to offer some “patients” moral guidance as well as, or even instead of, medical expertise:
I know you will be so kind as to enquire after Rose Limb (morally not physically) when you visit the mother. This child, for I think she is only 12, declared that if she did not like her new sister-in-law, she should leave the house & set up for herself elsewhere. (This is the harm the Mill does – girls of 13 think they owe no allegiance, if they can earn their own bread) If this fit of rebellion has, as I earnestly trust, passed away, I would not revive the possibility of her doing such a thing. Rose Limb is frightfully spoiled. Tho’ she is put to school at no expence [sic] to them, she is allowed to go or not as she pleases. I know you will kindly ask what she is doing. (The girls at Holloway are a heavy anxiety: so much dress: so little putting by money or even mending their own clothes. Many a girl who begs of me spends more money on herself relatively, and in a few instances absolutely, than I do.)
But “clinical” information did not flow in only one direction. Florence used other sources and gave information to Christopher Dunn:
Thank you for your kind note about Adam Prince. What I hear of him is that can now take neither milk nor eggs.
On occasions she shares doubts about her practice:
Poor Lyddy Prince has been helped this winter – it is a difficulty about this, knowing that what helps her goes to supply Adam [her son] with drink – She is now on the parish, with a claim to Medical relief.
The letters, then, offer a glimpse of how Florence Nightingale operated as an influential benefactor. Do such exchanges of very personal information challenge modern notions about patient confidentiality? We might remember that this is private correspondence, intended never to be seen by anyone other than Christopher Dunn himself. Is it we, as curious readers achieving access through a world wide web who are intruding on private matters?
Signature, Jan 1880 (ref: D2546/54)
See the letters for yourself
Images of the letters, along with many others written by Florence Nightingale, from archives and libraries across several countries, have been made freely available: http://archives.bu.edu/web/florence-nightingale. In particular this searchable web site gives access to a few letters to Christopher Dunn, the originals of which are held elsewhere.
The Crich Parish website has pages devoted to Christopher Dunn, and to the Whatstandwell Coffee Rooms, with transcriptions of a number of the letters held at the Record Office.