Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Representative women: The free nurse - Catherine Mompesson, Mary Pickard, Florence Nightingale

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II (1859-1860)
Representative women. The free nurse.
Catherine Mompesson: Mary Pickard: Florence Nightingale
by Harriet Martineau (as Ingleby Scott)

The people discussed in this article are Catherine Carr Mompesson (d. 1666), Mary Lovell Pickard (1798–1849), and Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).

The Free Nurse.
catherine mompesson: mary pickard: florence nightingale.

By the Free Nurse I mean to indicate the Sister of Charity who devotes herself to the sick for their own sake, and from a natural impulse of benevolence, without being bound by any vow or pledge, or having any regard to her own interests in connexion with her office.

There is no dispute about the beauty and excellence of the nursing institutions of the continent, Catholic and Protestant. There can be no doubt that many lives are utilised by them, which would otherwise be frittered away from want of pursuit and guidance. Every town where they live can tell what the blessing is of such a body of qualified nurses, ready to answer any call to the sick-bed. The gratitude of their patients, and the respect of the whole community, testify to their services and merits: and the frequent proposal of some experiment to naturalise such institutions in England, proves that we English are sensible of the beauty of such an organisation of charity. My present purpose, however, is to speak of a more distinctive kind of woman than those who are under vows. However sincere the compassion, however disinterested the devotedness, in an incorporated Sister of Charity, she lies under the disadvantage of her bonds in the first place, and her promised rewards in the other. She may now and then forget her bonds; and there are occasions when they may be a support and relief to her; but they keep her down to the level of an organisation which can never be of a high character while the duty to be performed is regarded as the purchase-money of future benefits to the doer. Those who desire to establish the highest order of nursing had rather see a spontaneous nurse weeping over the body of a suffering child that has gone to its rest than a vowed Sister wiping away the death-damps and closing the eyes, under the promise of a certain amount of remission of sins in consequence. There is abundance of room in society for both vowed and spontaneous nurses, in almost any number; but, their quality as nurses being equal, the strongest interest and affection will always follow the freer, more natural, and more certainly disinterested service. The weaker sort are perhaps wise to put themselves under the orders of authority, which will settle their duty for them: but such cannot be representative women, except by some force of character which in so far raises them above the region of authority. The Representative Women among Nurses are those who have done the duty under some natural incitement, of their own free will, and in their own way.

It will not be supposed, for a moment, that I am speaking slightingly of such organisation as is necessary for the orderly and complete fulfilment of the nursing function. In every hospital where nurses enter freely, and can leave at pleasure, there must be strict rules, settled methods, and a complete organisation of the body of nurses, or all will go into confusion. The authority I refer to as a lower sanction than personal free disposition, is that of religious superiors, who impose the task of nursing as a part of the exercises by which future rewards are to be purchased. There cannot be a more emphatic pleader for hospital and domestic organisation, as a means to the best care of the sick, than Florence Nightingale: and at the same time, all the world knows that she would expect better things from women who become nurses of their own accord, and remain so, through all pains and penalties, when they might give it up at any hour, than from nuns who enter that path of life because it leads (as they believe) straightest to heaven, and do every act at the bidding of a conscience-keeper who holds the ultimate rewards in his hand.

It would lead me too far now to cite examples of the different institutions, Catholic and Protestant, and show the results of the religious and secular, the vowed and the free systems of organised nursing: but the subject is one of curious and deep interest.

The three women whose honoured names stand at the head of this paper, acted singly and spontaneously in devoting themselves to the sick, though their freedom was not of the same character, and their incitements were not alike. Not the less are they all representatives of the growing order of Free Nurses.

On this day two hundred years, Catherine Mompesson was beautiful girl of twenty, near her marriage with a clergyman, who was to introduce her to the life of a minister’s wife in a wild place, and among wild people. Their home was the Tillage of Eyam, in Derbyshire, then thickly peopled with miners. In the green dell, and on the breezy hills below and above Eyam, they and their children enjoyed country health and pleasures for a little while. Then the news came of the Great Plague in London; and then of its spreading through the country: but the place was so breezy and so retired, that there might be hope of its being spared the visitation. The winter came, and thanksgivings were fervent for the health the people of Eyam had enjoyed. In the spring, however, when nobody was thinking of dreading the plague, it broke out in the village. Tradition says, it was from some clothes that arrived from a distant place. As soon as it appeared that the mischief was past arresting, the young mother thought first of her children,—or at least, pleaded first for them, in imploring her husband to leave the place with his family. He knew his duty too well. He was firm about remaining; and his desire was that she should carry away her children to a place of safety, aud remain there. This she refused with equal firmness: so they sent away the children, and set to work to nurse all Eyam. Out of seventy-six families, two hundred and fifty-nine persons died. The pastor and his wife shut themselves up with the people, allowing nobody to come in or go out, in order to confine the calamity to the village. By his faculty of organisation, all were fed; and by her devotedness, all were nursed, as far as seemed possible, till she sank in the midst of them. Her husband in good time engaged the country people of the surrounding districts to leave food and other supplies at stated places on the hills at fixed hours, when he pledged himself that they should encounter nobody from the village; and these supplies were fetched away at intermediate hours, without any one person ever taking advantage of the opportunity to get away. There could be no stronger evidence of the hold their pastor had on their affections. In a number of the Gentleman’s Magazine, published about the close of the last century, there is an engraving of a rock, called “Mompesson’s Pulpit.” It is a natural arch in the rock, near Eyam, where he stood to read prayers and preach during the plague,—the people being ranged on the open hill-side opposite, and within reach of his voice. This was to avoid the risks of collecting together in the church.

Catherine Mompesson nursed her neighbours from early spring till August, when she died. Amidst the appalling sights and sounds, of which her husband’s letters convey a dreadful idea, she sustained herself and him, and all about them. His immediate expectation of following her is shown by his letter of the 1st of September to Sir George Saville, about the choice of his successor and the execution of his will: but he lived till his 70th year—still the good clergyman to his life’s end.

It was domestic affection, evidently, which threw Catherine Mompesson into the position of a nurse. At first, she would have left the scene of sickness to preserve husband and children. It was for her husband’s sake that she remained—remained to be his helper, at any sacrifice to herself. An incident recorded in one of his letters shows the domestic affections strong in death. She had refused the “cordials” he pressed upon her, saying that she could not swallow them; but, on his suggestion of living for their children, she raised herself in bed, and made the effort. She took the medicines; but she was past saving. Her devotedness as a nurse was not impaired, but sanctified, by the influences under which she undertook the work. So the good Howard thought when he went to Eyam, before his last departure from England, to ascertain what details he could of the pestilence, and of the exemplary nurses of the sick. So think those who even yet visit the churchyard among the hills, and find out her grave, with the intimation at the foot of the suddenness of her call hence. “Cave: nescitis horam.”

Mary Pickard’s good work was of a similar nature; but even more freely undertaken. She was our contemporary, and has been only a few years dead. She was an American, born, I believe, of English parents; and, at any rate, connected with England by many relationships. In her early womanhood she visited England, previous to her marriage with Dr. Henry Ware, afterwards Divinity Professor in Harvard University. Among other relatives, she chose to visit an aunt who had early married below her station, and settled in the village of Osmotherly, on the borders of Yorkshire and Durham. On reaching the place, she found it ravaged by fever, in the way that one reads of in old books, but never dreams of seeing in the present century.

Mary Pickard could nurse. Through life she was a first-rate nurse, ready to undertake any number of patients, and to suffice to them all—having, in addition to her other nursing powers, a singular gift of serenity and cheerfulness. Full primed with these powers, she dismissed her chaise as soon as she saw how matters stood in the village; and there she remained for weeks and months. She shamed the frightened doctor, and sustained the nervous clergyman, and got up an organisation of the few who were well and strong to clean the streets and houses, and bury the dead quickly, and wash the clothes, and fetch the medicines and food. She herself seemed to the dying quite at leisure to wait upon them: yet the whole management, and no little cooking, and the entire attendance upon a large number of households, all down in the fever, rested upon her. Before she came all who were attacked died: from the day of her arrival some began to mend; but the place was nearly depopulated. She is known there by the name of “the Good Lady;” and most of the villagers never inquired about any other name.

Towards the latter end of the visitation, when she had complained of nothing, and was as cheerful as ever, and unsuspected of any capacity of wearing out, she one day sank down on the floor, and could not get up again. “Never mind!” said she. “It is only want of sleep. Just bring me some blankets, and let me lie here, and I shall do very well.” And there she lay—when awake giving directions to others about carrying on her work, but generally asleep, day and night. It was long before she could stand; and when she could she was sent away to recruit. Good nursing and comforts soon restored her; and she went to the village as soon as she was allowed. A joyful cry ran from house to house of those which were still inhabited; and the people crowded round the chaise, throwing in little presents which they had prepared for the chance of the Good Lady returning.

Alone she did it!—the nursing of a fever-stricken population, who were prostrated as by the plague. She did it simply because she was wanted. The people—all entire strangers to her, the aunt and all—were sick and dying; and she could not leave them. It never seemed to herself a remarkable act. The fever scene was remarkable; and of this she spoke with earnestness on occasion: but her own share in it was, in her view, a fine piece of experience; so that, if the fever was to happen, she was glad to have been there. She went back to America, married, and brought up her family of children in the simplest way, being only remarkable for her nursing skill, and the number of sick babies she had tended, and the children who had died in her arms, while she had a houseful of her own to attend to. She died of a lingering and painful disorder, some years after her husband. Her cheerfulness never failed; and in making arrangements for her orphan children, she spoke of her approaching departure just as she would of a voyage to Europe by the next steamer. If ever there was a perfect example of a spontaneous, unprofessional nurse, it was she.

Florence Nightingale, however, will be, through all time to come, the Representative Nurse par excellence! In her case it is a special calling, in virtue of natural capacity, moral and intellectual at once. She did not set out from any chosen starting-point. She did not propose to earn her own salvation by a life of good works. She was not incited by visions of a religious life in a favoured monastic community. She did not aspire to take in hand a department of human misery, in order to extinguish it, and then look about to see what particular misery it should be. She does not appear to have had any plans relating to herself at all. Nor was she overtaken by the plague in a village: nor did she overtake a fever in a village in the course of her travels, like her representative sisters of an earlier time: nor did she do the work of the occasion, and re-enter ordinary life as if nothing had happened. Her case is special and singular in every way.

Her childhood and youth were very much like those of little girls who have wealthy parents, and carefully chosen governesses, and good masters, and much travel—in short, all facilities for intellectual cultivation by study and extended intercourse with society, at home and abroad.

The peculiarity in the case of herself and her nearest relatives seems to be their having been reared in an atmosphere of sincerity and freedom—of reality, in fact,—which is more difficult to obtain than might be thought. There was a certain force and sincerity of character in the elder members on both sides of the house which could not but affect the formation of the children’s characters; and in this case there was a governess also whose lofty rectitude and immaculate truthfulness commanded the reverence of all who knew her.

In childhood a domestic incident disclosed to the honest-minded little girl what her liking was, and she followed the lead of her natural taste. She took care of all cuts and bruises, and nursed all illness within her reach; and there is always a good deal of these things within the reach of country gentry who are wealthy and benevolent. For the usual term of young-lady life, Florence Nightingale did as other young ladies. She saw Italy, and looked at its monuments; she once went to Egypt and Greece with the Bracebridges: she visited in society, and went to Court. But her heart was not in the apparent objects of her life—not in travel for amusement, nor in art. In literature, books which disclosed life and its miseries, and character with its sufferings, burnt themselves in upon her mind, and created much of her future effort. She was never resorted to for sentiment. Sentimentalists never had a chance with her. Besides that her character was too strong, and its quality too real for any sympathy with shallowness and egotism, she had two characteristics which might well daunt the sentimentalists—her reserve, and her capacity for ridicule. Ill would they have fared who had come to her for responsive sympathies about sentiment, or even real woes in which no practical help was proposed; and there is perhaps nothing uttered by her, from her evidence before the Sanitary Commission for the Army to her recently published “Notes on Nursing,” which does not disclose powers of irony which self-regardant persons may well dread.

Such force and earnestness must find or make a career. She evidently believes, as all persons of genius do, that she found it, while others say she made it. Philosophy will hereafter reconcile the two in her case and many others. As a matter of fact, while other young ladies were busy, and perhaps better employed than usual in enjoying the Great Exhibition, she was in the Kaiserswerth Institution, on the Rhine, going through the training for nursing, and investigating the methods of organisation there and elsewhere.

The strongest sensation she perhaps ever excited among her personal acquaintance was when she undertook to set up the Sanitarium in Harley Street, and left home to superintend the establishment. Her first work there was chiefly financial and the powers of administration she manifested were a complete justification of what she had done in leaving her father’s house to become what people called the matron of a charity. At first, common-minded people held up hands and eyes as if she had done something almost scandalous. Between that day and this, they must have discovered that she could exalt any function, and that no function could lower her. She rectified the accounts, paid the debts, and brought all round; and she always had leisure to help and comfort the sick ladies in the house. At one time, I remember, there was not a case in the house which was not hopeless; but there was no sign of dismay in Florence Nightingale. She completed her task, showing unconsciously by it how a woman as well as a man may be born to administration and command.

By a sort of treachery only too common in the visitors of celebrated people, we have all seen the letter of Mr. Sidney Herbert, in 1854, entreating Miss Nightingale to go—accompanied by her friends the Bracebridges, who are familiar with life in the East—to Turkey, to minister among the sick and wounded of our army. How soon she was ready, and how she and her band of nurses went, and were just in time to receive the wounded from Inkermann, no Englishman forgets. No man of any nation concerned will ever forget her subsequent services. She had against her not only a chaos of disorder in which to move, and a hell of misery around her to relieve, but special difficulties in the» jealousy of the medical officers, the rawness of the nurses so hastily collected, and the incompatibilities of the volunteer ladies who started on the enterprise with her or after her. On the state of the hospitals it can, I hope, never be necessary to enlarge again. We all know how, under her superintendence, places became clean and airy, and persons cleanly, clothed, fed, and afforded some chance of recovery from maladies or wounds. While history abides, the image of Florence Nightingale, lamp in hand, going through miles of beds, night by night, noting every patient as she went, and ministering wherever most wanted, will always glow in men’s hearts; and the sayings of the men about her will be traditions for future generations to enjoy.

She did not, like Mrs. Mompesson, sink down and die in the midst of the scene: nor did she, like Mary Pickard, return into ordinary life for the rest of a long career. She was prostrated by the Crimean fever at Balaklava, and carried up to the hospital on the cliffs till she began to mend, when she was taken to sea. She would not come home, because her work at Scutari was not finished. She remained there till the end of the war, by which time she and her military and medical coadjutors had shown what hospitals may be, and how low the rate of mortality of an army may be reduced, even in time of war.

She has never recovered from that fever; and for some years she has been confined by severe and increasing illness. Not the less has she worked, steadily and most efficiently. She cannot fulfil her aim,—of training nurses in an institution of her own, and thus raising up a body of successors. The grateful people of England supplied the means, without her knowledge or desire,—which was the same thing as imposing a new service upon her. She wished to decline it when she found how little likely her health was to improve. Her letter to the trustees of the fund must be fresh in all memories, and the reply of the trustees, who satisfied her that the money was accumulating, and the plan and the public able and willing to wait. If she could not do this particular work, she has done many others. Her written evidence before the Sanitary Commission for the Army is a great work in itself. So are various reforms urged on the military authorities by her and her coadjutors, and now adopted by the War Office. Reforms in the Indian army are about to follow. The lives thus saved no one will attempt to number; and the amount of misery and vice precluded by her scientific humanity is past all estimate.

Her “Notes on Nursing,” prepared and issued in illness and pain, are the crowning evidence of what she is and can do. Hitherto we have, I trust, appreciated and honoured her acts: now we are enabled to perceive and appreciate the quality of her mind. It was as certain before as it can ever be, that she must have acquired no little science, in various departments, to produce the effects she wrought: but we see it all now.

We see also, much more clearly than ever, her moral characteristics. I will not describe them when they can be so much better seen in her “Notes on Nursing.” Any one who reads those Notes without being moved in the depths of his heart, will not understand the writer of them by any amount of description: and those who have been so moved, do not need and will not tolerate it. The intense and exquisite humanity to the sick, underlying the glorious common sense about affairs, and the stem insight into the weaknesses and the perversions of the healthy, troubled as they are by the sight of suffering, and sympathising with themselves instead of the patient, lay open a good deal of the secret of this wonderful woman’s life and power. We begin to see how a woman, anything but robust at any time, may have been able, as well as willing, to undertake whatever was most repulsive and most agonising in the care of wounded soldiers, and crowds of cholera patients. We see how her minute economy and attention to the smallest details are reconcilable with the magnitude of her administration, and the comprehensiveness of her plans for hospital establishments, and for the reduction of the national rate of mortality. As the lives of the sick hang on small things, she is as earnest about the quality of a cup of arrowroot, and the opening and shutting of doors, as about the institution of a service between the commissariat and the regimental, which shall ensure an army against being starved when within reach of food. In the mind of a true nurse, nothing is too great or too small to be attended to with all diligence: and therefore we have seen Florence Nightingale doing, and insisting upon, the right about shirts and towels, spoon-meats and the boiling of rice; and largely aiding in reducing the mortality of the army from nineteen in the thousand to eight, in time of peace.

In the spirit and tone of this book we see, too, how it is that, with all her fame, we have known so little of the woman herself. Where it is of use to tell any piece of her own experience, she tells it; and these scraps of autobiography will be eagerly seized upon by all kinds of readers: but, except for the purpose of direct utility, she never speaks of herself, more or less, or even discloses any of her opinions, views, or feelings. This reserve is a great distinction in these days of self-exposure, and descanting on personal experiences. It is the best possible rebuke to the egotism, or the sentimentality, which has led several ladies to imagine that they could be nurses, without having tried whether they could bear the discipline. Her pure, undisguised common sense, and her keen perception of all deviations from common sense, may have turned back more or fewer women from the nursing vocation: but this is probably an unmixed good; for those who could be thus turned back were obviously unfit to proceed. She is the representative of those only who are nurses; that is, capable of the hardest and highest duties and sacrifices which women can undertake from love to their race.

In the end she will have won over far more than she can have (most righteously and mercifully) discouraged. Generations of women, for centuries to come, will be the better, the more helpful, and the more devoted for Florence Nightingale having lived; and no small number of each generation will try their strength on that difficult path of beneficence which she has opened, and on which her image will for ever stand to show the way.

Ingleby Scott.