UAB School of Nursing opens permanent exhibit of Nightingale letters

UAB School of Nursing Nightingale exhibit offers timeless leadership lessons relevant to the future of nursing and health care.

Florence Nightingale, indisputably the founder of modern nursing, left countless gifts to her profession, including a collection of 50 letters and more preserved in the UAB Historical Collections. Copies of these are on permanent exhibit in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Nursing.

UAB’s interactive exhibit is expected to enhance teaching opportunities for nursing faculty and the World Health Organization Collaborating Center, expand scholarly research and enable the community to become familiar with Nightingale’s accomplishments and contributions to modern nursing, science and health care.

“These wonderful letters are a tremendous asset to UAB, Birmingham and Alabama,” said UAB School of Nursing Dean Doreen Harper, Ph.D. “Any time you have primary resource material of a person as prominent in the history of health care as Florence Nightingale, you have something unique to be treasured and shared.

“Through this new exhibit we are fulfilling our responsibility to share the content with the rest of the world. In fact, Nightingale was a prominent force in the creation of global health care and global nursing, and these letters offer countless leadership lessons relevant to the future of nursing and health care,” Harper said.

Nightingale was born to a wealthy British family in 1820. She trained as a nurse despite her parents’ objections and became an advocate for improving care for the poor. During the Crimean War she was hailed as a heroine for introducing nursing into British military hospitals in Turkey, improving sanitary conditions and helping save soldiers’ lives. After the war she opened a training school for nurses, wrote instructional books and modernized hospital planning. She died in 1910.

“Florence Nightingale puts a face to the nursing profession because she is synonymous with nursing,” said UAB School of Nursing Archivist Pat Cleveland. “History tells us Nightingale felt driven to be a nurse, that she was called of God and felt that call at age 16. This was not a popular thing to do at that time, but she felt like she had to fulfill this call.”

“These wonderful letters are a tremendous asset to UAB, Birmingham and Alabama,” said UAB School of Nursing Dean Doreen Harper, Ph.D. “Any time you have primary resource material of a person as prominent in the history of health care as Florence Nightingale, you have something unique to be treasured and shared.

UAB’s Nightingale letters were handwritten during the period 1853-93, when she was between the ages 33 and 73, and cover topics such as hospitals, health care, nursing matters, sanitary conditions and charitable contributions. They include correspondence with renowned physician J. Gillham Hewlett, M.D., a health officer and later a sanitary commissioner in India, and with Madame Julie Salis-Schwabe, with whom she discusses war-relief efforts and charitable contributions for the Franco-Prussian and Austro-Hungarian wars.

“These letters span a time during which little is known about Nightingale,” Cleveland said. “Some of these letters were written when she was chronically ill and bedridden. She reserved her strength to write them.

“During the Crimean War she became known and respected worldwide for her nursing care. And after the war she felt she was not finished with her purpose so she wrote letters to share her knowledge,” Cleveland said.

UAB’s Nightingale letters, permanently housed in UAB’s Reynolds Historical Library, were purchased in 1951 from a New York bookstore by noted Alabama-born radiologist Lawrence Reynolds, M.D. Reynolds donated most of the Nightingale letters to UAB in 1958; additional Nightingale letters were donated by the Reynolds family following his death in 1961. The exhibit features reproductions and digital images of the letters housed on iPads for ease of reading. The Delia and John Robert Charitable Trust provided the funding for digitizing the letters and several letters that are included in the exhibit have been sponsored by donors.

The exhibit, housed on the first floor of the UAB School of Nursing, was made possible by a generous gift from Barrett and Rick MacKay and the Harry B. and Jane H. Brock Foundation. The space is named the Barrett Brock MacKay Florence Nightingale Exhibit to honor MacKay for her exceptional commitment to the growth and development of the school and to the advancement of nursing education and practice.

MacKay received her bachelor’s degree in nursing and her primary-care nurse practitioner certification from Vanderbilt University. She worked with a migrant farmer health-care program in Colorado before returning to her hometown Birmingham. Here she began working as a nurse educator and later as a care manager before attending the School of Nursing to earn her master’s degree in 1979. Since joining the school’s Board of Visitors in 2002 she has served on the scholarship selection committee, as chair of the board from 2008 to 2010 and was the first alumna chair. MacKay is an avid supporter and champion of the school’s efforts to perpetuate Florence Nightingale’s keen observations and recommendations about improving health through better sanitation and holistic care, which continue to be relevant today.

Harper said the exhibit maximizes that relevance through the many learning opportunities made possible by understanding the importance of Nightingale’s letters to nursing, public health and health-care administration.

“We have to learn from the past in order to go forward into the future,” Cleveland added. “We have to look back and see what we can learn from the high standards she set for nurses, because without her high standards we would not be here today.”

The Florence Nightingale Collection (letters) also may be accessed via a simple catalog search on the UAB Lister Hill Library website at www.uab.edu/lister.

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