More than 100 years after her death, Florence Nightingale remains the most famous nurse in history, the subject of numerous biographies, scholarly articles, documentaries, and films. While supervising a team of nurses during the Crimean War (1853–1856), she revolutionized the care of wounded and sick soldiers by implementing a number of improvements in hygienic practices, including handwashing and other steps that significantly reduced the death rate of British soldiers. A pioneer in the fields of hospital administration and design, sanitary engineering, statistical charts, and military nursing, the British-born Nightingale is today credited as the founder of modern nursing.
One of the most influential figures in Victorian England, she worked tirelessly both during and after the Crimean War to enact widespread reform of conditions in military and civilian hospitals as well as to introduce sanitation in working class homes. She also set up the first official training program for nurses, the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London (now the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery at King’s College in London). She also published the first modern textbook for nursing, Notes on Nursing—all of this despite the fact that she was often confined to a sickbed herself. While ill (biographers believe that she suffered from brucellosis), Nightingale wrote thousands of letters detailing her theories about a multitude of topics related to medical reform, from the importance of maintaining hygienic recovery areas in hospitals to the ways in which nurses should be trained. Nightingale’s ideas were soon adopted all over the world.
Now more than 2,000 of Nightingale’s letters are available for viewing online, thanks in large part to Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (HGARC), which embarked on a pioneering international collaboration two years ago with the Florence Nightingale Museum, the Royal College of Nursing, and the Wellcome Library to create a comprehensive digital database of Nightingale’s voluminous correspondence. Known as the Florence Nightingale Digitization Project, the database offers scholars, biographers, students, and anyone interested in the history of nursing free, public access to letters that have long been held in private collections.
The Nightingale Project was conceived by HGARC director Vita Paladino. The Gotlieb Archives possessed just over 300 of Nightingale’s letters, the largest collection in the world outside of the United Kingdom, and Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93) wanted to create an expansive online archive that would allow the British reformer’s correspondence to reach as large an audience as possible. “Nightingale is the benchmark, she’s the founder of nursing as we know it, and the material is still relevant,” Paladino says. “Somehow this wonderful woman put to paper what hospitals need to do, what nurses need to do. She’s the founder of modern nursing, so it’s important to bring these letters to light. If she was not ill, she probably would’ve been writing books and articles, but in her case the correspondence is most important. Those letters contain all the theory. So she’s sitting in her bed, writing these letters, important foundations for medicine and nursing.”
Paladino had no problem convincing other institutions to join the digital collaborative. The Florence Nightingale Museum contributed 866 letters, the Wellcome Library another 607. “I think we set an example that archives shouldn’t be competing, that you should pool your resources and put your subject out there the best you can,” says Paladino.
The result of this international collaboration is more than a collection of scanned documents gathered online. The Nightingale database uses a BU-developed open source, web-based application called Archive Manager in order to provide the richest, most user friendly experience possible for researchers. Sean Noel, associate director of HGARC, says that Archive Manager allows archivists to catalog and organize each letter using descriptive metadata, so that researchers can use an advanced search engine to locate letters by subject, by date, or by recipient rather than having to scroll through thousands of letters to find what they are looking for. Suggested search terms such as “hospital design and construction,” “sanitary engineering,” “statistics,” and “workhouses” are also included to facilitate searches.
While the project hasn’t been an easy task for the Gotlieb archivists, Noel says that the innovative research tool that has come out of it has been well worth the effort. “It’s an enormous endeavor, but the staff is very excited to be working on it because it’s kind of cutting edge in the archival world,” Noel says. “It’s not just putting up a couple of PDFs for people to download. It’s a very different kind of animal.”
Just last week, HGARC announced that seven new partners had joined the Florence Nightingale Digital Collaborative, bringing the total number of letters available in the database to 2,272. The new partners include the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library at Columbia University, the Center for the History of Medicine’s Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard University, the Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the United States National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, the University of North Carolina Health Sciences Library, and, in England, the British Red Cross and the Derbyshire Record Office. The hope is that more institutions in possession of Nightingale correspondence will join the collaborative.
Paladino says she is working on forming relationships with other archives and organizations that own Nightingale’s letters, including the British Library, which alone has 300 bound volumes of correspondence. Her goal is for the database to allow what she calls “one-stop shopping for Nightingale.” While the physical copies of each letter are available in their respective archives, the beauty of the digitization project is that researchers, scholars, and members of the public interested in reading Nightingale’s letters no longer have to travel to Boston or London to do so. “The Nightingale letters are valuable,” Paladino says. “But it’s more than that. How many people would be able to come here from hospitals all over the world and look at them? For me, this brings the letters into the light and makes her work and theories more accessible.”
The Florence Nightingale Digitization Project is a free public database. Access it here.
Samantha Pickette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.