Sunday, July 19, 2009

Back to normal

My life seems to be back on track. It's Sunday morning, C-SPAN is on in the background, and, as usual, every 5th caller or so seems convinced Obama is a socialist. Or worse. I always wonder if any of those people have any clue at all just socialism actually is -- probably not. If they did, it wouldn't frighten them as much as it does. Buzz Aldrin is supposed to be on in a little while talking about the moon landing (h/t to Utah Savage for the link), and I'm willing to bet there'll be tinfoil hat types calling in then, too, to rant about Obama and his pernicious influence on everything.

I'm not exactly sure just how I survived 4 weekends in a row with no C-SPAN. I thought I'd at least have withdrawal symptoms, but, nope, didn't miss it at all the entire time I was out of Atlanta. Which means that maybe I'll actually survive once I retire and am back up on the tundra with limited options -- all PBS, by the way.

What I did do while on vacation was read a lot. I headed out of town with ambitious plans for the two weeks. I was going to spend a couple days actually doing research on an 1893 typhoid epidemic in Ironwood, Michigan; I was going to persuade the S.O. we'd like to drive over to Grand Marais (either Michigan or Minnesota, both are worth visiting); I'd spend time with the Older Daughter and the grandkids; I'd get all the flowerbeds (both up by the retirement bunker site and by Tammi's cabin) weeded; and the S.O. and I would complete several projects. I would, in short, be a burning ball of ambition.

Ha. It rained. I read. And one of the things I read was a biography of Florence Nightingale. It was the oddest book, one of those tomes where you pick it up, find yourself wondering why you're reading it, but still can't put it down. This book was huge, definitely into the "would make a great doorstop" category in terms of weight, and went into excruciating detail about every aspect of Nightingale's life, but you know what? I still don't have a clue as to just what it was Nightingale actually did other than write astounding amounts of letters and reports. There's chapter after chapter talking about Nightingale harassing various politicians, either in person or via letters, into letting her take a contingent of nurses to Turkey to help with the wounded during the Crimean War; there's page after page about newspapers reporting on how wonderful she was and how much the soldiers worshipped her -- but there never is any description of just what it was she did.

You know, the assumption is that she was busy nursing, i.e., changing bandages, bathing patients, and doing similar tasks, but the weird part is that her correspondence very specifically argues against using "nurses" to do that type of menial task. Over and over she talks about nurses providing spiritual help to the sick, basically sitting there holding peoples' hands, gently wiping sweat from fevered brows, and maybe spoon feeding the patient some aspic. So just what did she do in the Crimean War besides wander around the hospital with a lamp in the middle of the night? It's a mystery. I think the author made a classic mistake -- he talks a lot about the image of Florence Nightingale as the lady with the lamp and how everyone knows about her work as a nurse during the Crimean War, i.e., he's assuming everyone has read previous biographies and/or children's books about her. And that's not true. I knew who Florence Nightingale was, more or less, but I don't think either of my daughters would.

The one thing I did get out of the book was Nightingale was not a particularly likable person, at least not on paper. Which is odd, because the author seemed to be trying for hagiography and not the reverse. He made a number of comments about trying to redeem Nightingale's reputation and/or restore her rightful place in nursing history. Still, the more I read, the less I liked her -- especially when the author got into some of Nightingale's other theories about nursing. It was a higher calling, a spiritual duty, so nurses should not be recruited from the "lower" classes. And, because it was a higher calling, nurses should be paid as little as humanly possible. If nursing paid a living wage, then women might go into nursing because they saw it was a career rather than as the religious vocation it actually was. In short, the woman was a lunatic, a Victorian-era middle-class snob with a martyr complex and delusions of sainthood.

That said, the book overall wasn't a complete waste of my vacation time. One reason Nightingale had so much apparent influence is her family moved in interesting circles. Powerful politicians were family friends, as were various intellectuals, scientists, and artists. The background material, the descriptions of the context in which Nightingale moved, was really interesting. Too bad Nightingale herself provided less engaging material.

[Photo is of an abandoned sauna.]


  1. Interesting post about one of the great obsessive-compulsive Victorians! They've always fascinated me. In Nightingale's case, it seems to me her contribution to soldiers' care in the Crimea was her formidable organizing abilities. Before Nightingale, the injured had basically been treated like crap (and died like flies) in filthy pestholes. She was the one who figured out a plan to treat them like human beings: how to clean these pigsties/hospitals,provide a healthy diet and skilled care, and finance it all by constantly nagging politicians and using her networking skills to raise funds to accomplish the changes. She may not have personally been cleaning bedpans, but she contributed all right. The fact that she had an aristocratic background which gave her leverage, and that she was (to use modern terms) one determined tough mother, helped her in this giant task.

  2. Obsessive-compulsive doesn't begin to cover it. And she definitely was a genius when it came to compiling statistical information. I kept wondering just what all she might have achieved if her family hadn't spent so many years trying to force her into conforming to the role of a docile, dutiful Victorian daughter.

  3. The Victorians (well, a certain set)had a rather Calvinistic mindset about "Duty". Also, from what I've studied, they seemed to get a frisson from the guilt of behaving badly.

    When you think of what medical care for soldiers was in those days, any help would be good no matter who offered whatever.

    I've read speculation that she suffered from syphillis (I doubt it) and she was definitly a woman of her class.

    She had a better idea about what a viable hospital should be than most, had some idea of organisation, nutrition, and felt that the practice of making the regimental criminals care for the sick and wounded as punishment (custom and tradition at the time)probably wouldn't do the helpless much good.

    Rations were usually cut for sick or wounded men, even into the American civil war. He wasn't working so he didn't need as much as the able bodied, went the theory. So, you have a guy who is fatigued, malnourished, probably fighting off some parasite or illness, add to that a wound that must heal, infection to be fought off, plus the fact that many of them were still growing (or trying to) and they get dicey care and half rations. She tried to change that.

  4. I don't have any problem with socialism, properly done. And I think a properly done socialism wouldn't have welfare (other than maybe very short term).

    It would have what I think of as workfare. We'll help you, but not in grand style, and you have to pitch in also.

    Fuck it, I'm going camping high on a mountain in the morning.

  5. Sarge, the latest theory about Nightingale and her health is that she suffered from chronic undulating fever. She almost died from something during the Crimean War, and her health was fragile for the rest of her life. Her various symptoms are now recognized as classic for brucellosis.

    I am quite sure she had great ideas when it came to reforming health care, both military and civilian, and pushed hard for implementing them, but the book does a poor job of articulating her actual actions.

  6. Our problem with "heros" is that we tend to make them of marble and are somewhat distressed when the real person shows through on occasion.

    Surely they belched, passed gas, scratched their naughty bits when they itched... certainly they had irrational predjudices and ineptitude. I often wonder why biographers gloss over or discount the very complexities that make them and their accomplishments so interesting.

    I have a friend who is a fellow reenactor, she has doctorates in both psychology and psychiatry, and until she got involved in reenacting she never thought of any of the implications that the family dynamics of Lincoln, Lee, Grant, and Jackson my have had in history. She literally shivers when she thinks of the possibilities.

    When I was a kid, we returned from Ethiopia and my father was stationed in the Washington area again. To get up to speed with the school (never made it) one was required to read Samuel Pepys' Diary.

    I didn't want to, so nothing would do for my father but that I had to read the complete, unexpurgated volumns that the library had...I think I was the first person to actually check any of the books out.

    I found out that our friend Sam was quite a naughty boy and apparently quite proud of it. Just the stuff a pubescent boy would love!

    I read these volumns a lot, and my father became suspicious. He picked up one of the tomes and it fell open to one of my favorite parts, and my dear father was...vexed about it. It certainly wasn't what HE read in school.

    Next time I went to check Mr. Pepys' opus out the librarian instructed me that I was barred from it on my father's orders. Bah.


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