Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Bringing Nightingale down to size

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e2317 (Published 28 March 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2317
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

We all love heroes and heroines, but even more so do we enjoy the exposure of their hidden faults. I will not speculate on why this should be so: perhaps it is that, our lives being mediocre, we fear to contemplate unmitigated the heights of human accomplishment.

The greater is the reputation; the more guiltily delicious is the debunking. When I was a child, Florence Nightingale was an untouchable heroine, like Elizabeth Fry. Before her, nurses were Dickens’ Mrs Gamp; after her, they were ministering angels. Soldiers were eternally kissing her shadow as she went by.

One of the great works of historical debunking is F B Smith’s Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power, published in 1982. Smith, an Australian historian, …

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