The Cult of Flo

Photo of a life-size model of Florence Nightin...
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Sue Hassmiller, PhD, Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Initiative on the Future of Nursing gave a talk at the University of Washington School of Nursing last week. The webcast of her talk is available on the school’s website. A few things struck me about her talk, but the main one was her very obvious passion and enthusiasm for nursing, and her leadership role in moving the Future of Nursing Initiative further, into implementation. I admire that. However, I was disappointed with how she concluded her talk. Her last PPT slide included a painting of Florence Nightingale, complete with her mythical lamp, and a Nightingale quote:

“May we hope that, when we are all dead and gone, leaders will arise who have been personally experienced in the hard, practical work, the difficulties and the joys of organizing nursing reforms, and who will lead far beyond anything we have ever done!”

Dr. Hassmiller said she didn’t know who Florence had been talking to when she said this, but it was a favorite quote of hers, and that Florence Nightingale was one of her heroes. Then she concluded her talk by saying, “Florence Nightingale is calling us to continue her work and I’m on board with this, are you?”

I have never understood the Cult of Flo, how so many nurses hold the memory or myth of Florence Nightingale in some sacred realm. I suppose that medicine has a bit of the Cult of Hippocrates, but it doesn’t hold a candle (or a lamp) to the Cult of Flo. Florence is quoted way too many times within nursing lectures and writings, to the point they are like tea bag sayings. Perhaps we need at least a temporary moratorium on Florence Nightingale quotations, similar to what the editor of the New Republic did in the 1980’s barring any Tocqueville quotations on the grounds that they were the ultimate cliché. And similar to quotes from Democracy in America, quotes from Nightingale are almost always taken out of context.

So I went to the original text of the written speech of Florence Nightingale where Dr. Hassimiler’s quote came from. It is from a speech entitled “Sick Nursing and Health Nursing” written towards the end of Florence’s life and delivered by a baroness at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The quote is part of the concluding paragraph, the rest of which reads as follows:

“May we hope that every nurse will be an atom in the hierarchy of the ministries of the Highest! But then she must be in her place in the hierarchy, not alone, not an atom in the distinguishable mass of thousands of nurses. High hopes, which will not be deceived!”

Wow. I found it telling that an initial Google search for the quote had Florence’s text next to the Rapture Survival Guide, and both seem fond of exclamation points. Florence died 17 years after writing this speech, in 1910. The Museum of Nursing History (Philadelphia) website declares for 2010: “Celebrate the International Year of the Nurse and the 100th Anniversary of the Death of Florence Nightingale!” Since it is 2011, perhaps we can finally bury the Cult of Flo.

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