Thursday, December 17, 2009

F N Born 12 May 1820, Died 13 August 1910

At the moment I am putting together a collection of historical and cultural tours, many of which have a strong biographical element, for a British heritage organisation.

Next year (2010) sees the 100th anniversary of the death of a veritable heroine, Florence Nightingale. I've begun researching Florence’s life, and one of the first things that has struck me is Nightingale's strangely silent grave, where the memorial for one of the 19th century’s most lauded figures is no more eloquent than:

F.N. Born 12 May 1820, Died 13 August 1910.

"A wild swan" to her mother, "the lady with the lamp" to the readers of the contemporaneous Illustrated London News, the founder of modern nursing was many things: a tireless campaigner, an accomplished mathematician and statistician, and, I’ve just discovered, even the author of a novella, Cassandra.

Following in Nightingale’s footsteps has led me to stumble on one of London’s most unexpected curiosities. I already knew about the newly-extended Florence Nightingale Museum, located on the site of the pioneering nursing school that she founded at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1860. But the remains of the original St Thomas’ - named after Thomas Becket and Thomas the Apostle - lie eastwards around a bend in the Thames. Tucked away at the top of a rickety spiral staircase in the attic of St Thomas’s Church is England’s oldest surviving operating theatre, constructed in 1822, and, believe me, it doesn’t require much imagination to hear the screams of those pre-anesthetic days! Equally fascinating is the lonely garret used by the hospital’s apothecary to store and cure the medicinal herbs used during the operations.

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