UAB’s Florence Nightingale Letters

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UAB's Florence Nightingale Letters

As UAB nursing students take finals this week, they’ll be drawing on what they’ve learned about the human body in class and in clinics. But students also have had a special way to connect with the history of the field. The school holds 50 letters written by the woman credited with founding modern nursing — Florence Nightingale.

The school has owned the letters since1958 when an Alabama doctor donated them. However, the display didn’t come until later.

“When I arrived as dean in November of 2005 and learned that these letters were here, I was most interested in really figuring out how to get the letters out of those boxes,’ said Doreen Harper, UAB School of Nursing dean. “[That way] our students and our faculty and our community really could have the opportunity to learn about what Nightingale had done.”

Florence Nightingale is known for leading a group of volunteer nurses to care for sick and injured soldiers in the Crimean War. She also started the first secular nursing school and wrote the first nursing textbook. The letters at UAB are written to a health officer in India and a Prussian philanthropist. They deal with improving healthcare in India and war relief efforts in the Franco-Prussian and Austro-Hungarian wars. Harper says she is excited that the exhibit brings attention to these letters because they have been relatively unseen for much of their time on the university’s campus.

“It makes the Nightingale letters come alive so that people know it’s here,” said Harper.

A few of the letters are displayed near an elevator in the UAB School of Nursing building. Nursing professor Summer Langston says the exhibit offers students a first-hand look at nursing history and does so by incorporating modern technology. Next to the actual letters are two iPads protruding from each side wall that have digitized copies of the originals.

“You can kind of scroll through things and look, the way that the inscriptions are included on the walls,” said Langston. “Just the exhibit itself is unique.”

For those who find Nightingale’s handwriting too difficult to decipher, each iPad contains a Word document in an easy to read font. Still, the conventions of late 1800s letter writing jumps out to nursing student Amia Loubser.

“I guess we think so much about how fast communication moves now that back then they had to kind of like recap what the letter was about because I bet they forgot by the time they actually got the letter and got a reply,” said Loubser.

She says everyone involved with nursing should always have Florence Nightingale in the back of their minds as an example of professional dedication. She’s also a bit sorry that she hadn’t noticed the exhibit or noted Nightingale’s undertakings.

“Unfortunately, most of the time we’re in such a hurry we barely get to stop. But that was probably their original intent: for it to be, you know, an exhibition but also a daily reminder of the inspiration Florence Nightingale’s gives us,” said Loubser.

It’s a reminder for all UAB nursing students. They won’t just know where they are going, they’ll know where the field has been.

~Russ Timothy, April 22, 2014

More | Click to view the virtual Florence Nightingale exhibit

Andrew Yeager

Andrew Yeager