Sometimes an article I come across in my rambles around the internet ties in with something that’s already on my mind. This New York Times article about extraordinary women of science and their struggles against the misguided attitudes of their day comes just days after I watched a movie about one of these brilliant women from the past.

Actually, I should say I watched most of the movie, after coming across it on TCM. I never caught the title, but it was an excellent old black and white production about the life of Florence Nightingale. Something that was inadvertently amusing was the way her old friends and family called her Flo! That nickname somehow did not fit well with the solemn, dignified lady with the lamp.

Sadly, up until a few years ago, I probably would have continued my late night channel flipping, thinking the movie would be dull.
Perhaps it would to most people, but because of Anne Perry’s wonderful Victorian mystery novels, I know of Florence Nightingale now in the same way I know of and admire current public figures.

Perry’s courageous and intelligent character Hester Latterly is a nurse who served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. Because of this character and absorbing stories of her background under the tutelage of Miss Nightingale, I was already familiar with obscure names on a faraway map. I felt as if I walked familiar halls with Florence Nightingale, as she made made the rounds among her suffering patients in the Scutari hospital. I admired her courage as she traveled to Balaclava in order to care for the wounded in the trenches. I thought she must be mad to stand outside in the snow until wrongheaded men in charge allowed her in to care for soldiers, but that kind of madness is born out of the kind of strength of character so few of us possess.

Once a person gets beyond the sometimes dry facts, as they are briefly presented as historical footnotes of formal education, they find a rich and fascinating, deeply human story. Florence Nightingale was so much more than some kind, random woman in a cape and funny looking hat. The real person was every bit as cool before her time and intriguing as the wonderful author Anne Perry’s character Hester. The sad difference is that Florence Nightingale had only history as her storyteller, while Hester Latterly sprang from the mind of one of the most gifted novelists I’ve ever encountered.

If I didn’t read every Anne Perry novel I can get my hands on, particularly the William Monk ones, I wouldn’t know thing one about the great historical figure behind Hester’s grit and independence. And if I hadn’t read about Florence Nightingale in the aforementioned article, I wouldn’t now know that she had a “wonky side”. Seems the revered Victorian nurse was obsessed with statistics. She made detailed graphs that helped her make her case for the extreme cleanliness and compassion approach that eventually led to the saving of countless lives.

According to the movie I saw, Florence Nightingale’s pioneering work in the Crimea led to a six percent fatality rate…down from fifty-six! That is a phenomenal contribution to modern medicine. Her practices are implemented still and help make our world safer and more survivable in times of war and epidemic. Quite a legacy for a woman so without hubris that she preferred to be unsung. Sometimes history provides us with remarkable role models…heroes even. All we have to do is mine the dirt dry facts to uncover the extraordinary.

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