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UVA Honors Nurses Overshadowed by Nightingale


Florence Nightingale is considered the founder of modern nursing, but many women of color – and men – also made important contributions to the field.  At the University of Virginia's  Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, experts are telling their stories.

“Halfway along Pall Mall in London stands the statue of one of the most famous Victorians in the world.  Florence Nightingale is revered as the nurse who went to the Crimea to care for the common solider -- the lady with the lamp,” says the narrator of a documentary on Florence Nightingale. 

She  is perhaps the best-known figure in nursing history.  Nightingale came from a rich family, was well educated and ambitious, but scholars today say she doesn’t deserve all the glory.

“She did many important things within nursing, but she also created the ideal nurse as someone who was white, female and middle class,” says UVA Professor Dominique Tobbell. 

She believes  Nightingale has obscured other heroic nurses like Mary Seacole, a Black woman who also served in Crimea.

“Seacole was a Jamaican nurse. She combined traditional African and Caribbean healing knowledge. When the Crimean War broke out, Seacole first traveled to London to see if she could get admitted into the British army.”

The army said no, so she went to the front at her own expense.  Assistant Professor Beth Hunt says UVA hopes to raise the profile of other nurses in history. Hundreds of thousands, for example, trained in the Phillipines.

“They worked in the Middle East, Africa, Australia," Hunt explains.  "I don’t think there’s a continent that they have not worked on.”

And while they might not have had the title nurse, many men have contributed to the field as medics in battle and orderlies in hospitals.  Their stories are told on the walls of the nursing school and will be featured on a new website and during a series of programs next fall. 

***Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief