Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon

Written by Mark Bostridge
Review by Phyllis T. Smith

What could a brilliant, wealthy young woman do in Victorian England if marriage did not entice her, and domestic spinsterhood could not contain her fierce energy? She could become Florence Nightingale. The saccharine popular image of the Lady with the Lamp has very little in common with the subject of this biography. She was a rebel who broke free of family constraints at great emotional cost to herself, her parents, and her more conventional sister. Partly motivated by religious faith, she wished to alleviate suffering, but did little hands-on nursing. She reorganized military hospitals and reformed the care of wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War, and came home a national heroine, having set the groundwork for nursing as an acceptable vocation for women.

Though a chronic illness contracted in the war made her a semi-invalid, she tirelessly crusaded for medical and sanitary reform, and had a worldwide impact. Judgmental, driven, fonder of humankind than of any particular person, she was admirable without being very likable. This well-written, exhaustively researched biography is admirable, too, but once Nightingale’s youthful struggles and wartime heroism are over, the life of this cool customer makes for rather dry reading.