Helen Rappaport

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Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History


The Crimean War (1853-1856) holds a place in the history of medicine, specifically, the history of nursing. For as the British public read the 1850s Times reports about the total lack of care suffered by their wounded in this conflict, a British nurse, Florence Nightingale, volunteered to recruit a team of nurses to aid the suffering men. The Times created a relief fund for the sick and wounded, and Queen Victoria, an enthusiastic supporter of this war against Russia, sponsored an even larger fund. Female nurses had a reputation for drunkenness and promiscuity. Nightingale made it a point to recruit nuns and women from the lower classes who would be more manageable than educated, upper class women. Three black nurses applied, including Mary Seacole, but they were rejected.

The Turks, British allies, allowed Florence Nightingale the use of their army barracks at Scutari, across from Constantinople: "'I have been well acquainted with the dwellings of the worst parts of most of the great cities of Europe,' Nightingale wrote,' but have never been in any atmosphere which I could compare with that of the Barrack Hospital at night'" (111). Open sewers ran beneath these vermin-infested structures  which were crammed with sick soldiers lying on the filthy floor. There were no supplies and few doctors. Typhus, typhoid, cholera or dysentery killed many patients. Nightingale's meticulous statistics showed alarming escalation of mortality rates; she believed in cleanliness and fresh air but not in the germ theory of disease. When comparing her numbers with those of other military hospitals, Nightingale understood that soap alone would not save the men.

Rappaport describes the nursing offered by army wives, widows and other volunteers, including French nuns. The women's living conditions, especially during pregnancy and childbirth, often resulted in sickness and death. Others volunteered as cooks, including Elizabeth Davis who alleged that while "...she and the other nurses dined on the stewed-up, tough old meat used to make soup for the patients, Nightingale ‘had a French cook, and three courses of the best of every kind of food ... served up everyday at her table'" (168-169).

Nightingale became famous as the heroine of the Crimean War. She is known now as the founder of professional nursing. Recent research has questioned whether Nightingale was the real angel of the Crimea. Rappaport investigates the work of the Jamaican nurse, healer, and entrepreneur Mary Seacole, one of the 3 black nurses rejected for service in the Crimean War. She financed her journey to and stay in the Crimea herself. She built a British Hospital in the Crimea, and treated the wounded at Balaklava there and in the field. The soldiers called her Mother Seacole because she cared for their material and spiritual needs. She sold gin and raki and home-cooked meals, and went bankrupt because too generous with credit. Seacole recouped her losses and achieved bestseller status with her memoir, Mrs. Seacole's Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands (1857), the first memoir by a black woman from Britain.

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