History comes alive again at BRLSI

The BRLSI’s History and Culture group has been dormant for a while, but came alive again this evening with the first lecture organised by its new convenors, Marie-Louise Luxemburg and Lindsay Keniston. Fittingly, history itself came alive too, as author Hugh Small (right)) gave us his view on one of 19th century Britain’s most famous figures, the nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale.
How ill was Florence Nightingale? turned out to be not merely an examination of the lady’s medical condition, characterised by physical weakness and deep depression, after her return from the Crimean War. Instead it was about the hygiene conditions in military hospitals during the war, which killed far more soldiers than battle did, and Nightingale’s role in changing them. As is often the case with historical research these days, Mr Small’s work, documented in his book Forence Nightingale: Avenging Angel, revealed the ‘official’ story to be not entirely true.
Although the ‘lady with the lamp’ is often credited with reducing the death rate in Crimean hospitals, this was, in fact, achieved mainly by the Sanitarians, a group campaigning for better public sanitation and living conditions, who cleaned up the hospitals and dramaticaly reduced cross-infection. It was only when Nightingale, an accomplished statistician, returned to England and began work on a report into the war that she realised what the real problem had been (she’d previously blamed the army for sending too many soldiers to hospital). To her credit, she never claimed responsibility for the Crimean clean-up, and spent the rest of her life working with the Sanitarians at home, saving even more lives in the process.
The relevance of all this to Nightingale’s health lies in the cause of her depression, which other historians have attributed to, among other things, brucellosis and her being (allegedly) a pathological liar. Hugh Small’s theory is that she became depressed at realising she’d misjudged things so badly during the war, before picking herself up and becoming a very effective public health campaigner. Such an explanation wouldn’t, however, have suited the government of the day, which had tried to block the Sanitarians’ efforts due to an aversion to raising taxes to pay for sewers. They preferred to suppress the report (which she leaked) and make her a popular heroine. In such ways is ‘official’ history written.
History is all about insights, and in an entertaining talk Hugh Small gave us many. One of the most memorable was almost an aside – by separating the urban poor from their effluent and livestock, the Sanitarians put them closer to the living conditions of their hunter-gatherer ancestors, whom archaeological records show to have been stronger and healthier than the farmers who replaced them. An unexpected bonus, and a piece of analysis of which the analytically-minded Florence Nightingale would no doubt have approved.
• The History and Culture group is in action again on Thursday April 29th, this time with history from living memory as Audrey Salters talks about her experiences of Living in China under Japanese Occupation during the Second World War as a small child of missionary parents. Later in the year the group plans a series of lectures to mark the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society. If you have an idea for a historical or cultural lecture, contact Marie-Louise Luxemburg or Lindsay Keniston on history@brlsi.org.