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Baroness Cox of Queensbury —
The beneficiaries of Nightingale's dedication

Caroline Cox
Baroness Cox

In my teenage days when I first learnt about Florence Nightingale, I developed a profound respect for her. She was a role model for my generation in many ways: a person of global vision, deep commitment to fundamental principles, great moral and physical courage, and an ability to make her mark as a woman in a very male-dominated society.

During my days as a student nurse, I grew to appreciate her multifaceted professional contributions. These include her endeavours to transform nursing from a lowly and often discredited occupation to a profession with demanding standards of practice together with a vision of a healing ministry combining respect for knowledge-based practice with holistic care of patients' spiritual, emotional, and physical needs.

Later, my admiration reached new levels, when I visited the famous barracks at Scutari. I was visiting Turkey to work with colleagues developing nursing research. It seemed appropriate to request a visit to the rooms occupied by Florence Nightingale and I came away even more humbled and inspired by the courage and gritty determination of this amazing woman.

The "Golden Horn" and the Bosphorus may conjure up pictures of a beautiful blue sea lapping romantically at the shores of historic cities. The reality on the day of my visit was very different. A freezing wind was driving flurries of snow over rough, swirling water. Florence Nightingale's office on the corner of the building was buffeted by the storm.

A little staircase led up to her equally bleak and comfortless bedroom. I was humbled and challenged to imagine the life she must have chosen: leaving the comforts of upper class England to live in these harsh conditions and to try to bring some comfort to countless wounded and dying men, with so little to offer by way of treatment compared with the resources available to us today.

Her care and compassion became legendary. "The Lady with the Lamp" became a symbol of the essence of nursing; the commitment to be with those who are suffering, in their darkest hours and to minister to each person's spiritual, psychological and clinical needs.

Nowadays, everybody knows the name Florence Nightingale and her role in the Crimean War. But this was one relatively brief episode in her life. Her professional and political contributions extend much further. Having taken charge of nursing at Scutari she systematically set about overcoming the obstacles to improved health for her patients. She took on the cut-throat male dominated world of military and medical politics and succeeded against the odds during a century with very few similar female role models.

The beneficiaries of her dedication included not only the soldiers of the Crimean War, but also the sick in the workhouses and the poverty-stricken slum dwellers in England; the lower caste peoples of India; the aborigines and Maoris whose numbers were declining as the empire advanced; and children in Sri Lanka, Natal and West Africa.

Long before the advent of modern communications, Florence Nightingale had a truly global vision, combined with the motivation of a strong faith and an understanding of the complex relationships of politics, poverty and ill-health. Together with her fierce determination and indomitable courage, she became a formidable force for good.

My own work in the field of humanitarian aid has taken me to be with many of today's forgotten peoples in forgotten lands, many of whom are trapped behind closed borders, suffering at the hands of brutal regimes. They are often unreached by major aid organisations, and are left to suffer and die, unhelped and unheard. They include the people of Sudan, where well over 2 million have died and over 5 million been displaced by war since the present brutal military regime took power by military coup in 1989.

On my last visit, children were dying of whooping cough as  local health workers had no medicines; young mothers sat and wept as their infants died on their breasts, empty of milk as the mothers were themselves starving.  Twice this year, I have visited the ethnic national groups suffering at the hands of another brutal regime in Burma. Peoples such as the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Chin, and Kachin are being subjected to ethnic cleansing or cultural genocide.

On my last visit, I talked to many victims. They included a young mother who had just lost five children to malaria in an area where aid organizations are denied access; and a young man who had been used as a human minesweeper by the regime's soldiers: his leg had been blown off and he had been left to die.

These are just two examples of places in today's world which are, in their own ways, as dark and hopeless as the wards of Scutari. Florence Nightingale's vision and inspiration are still needed as much now as they were in her own times.

Also still needed is her vision for the highest possible professional standards of nursing care in particular and health care in general, I therefore hope that her story will be more widely available in the education system, as an inspiration for children and students in this country and abroad.

Baroness (Caroline) Cox of Queensbury is a nurse and social scientist who has won international awards for her humanitarian campaigns. She was created a Life Peer in 1982 and has been a deputy speaker of the House of Lords since 1985. She is President of HART (Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust) and a Vice President of the Royal College of Nursing.


FN statue

At the Crimean War Memorial in London, UK with Dr. Susan Hassmiller, Senior Advisor for Nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, taken on her 2010 Nightingale Journey. This statue is one of only two of non-royal women in Central London.

Flo with Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the 2010 Nightingale Centenary opening of the Florence Nightingale Museum in London, UK