The letter was written by hand on September 13, 1866, by Florence Nightingale, the legendary British war heroine who became known as the founder of nursing. At age 46, Nightingale was answering an inquiry from a journalist, asking her to describe her accomplishments.

Nightingale wrote that she did not believe she was qualified to answer such a question. Then she added, “If I could, it would be to show how a woman of very ordinary ability has been led by God, by strange and unaccustomed paths, to do in His service what He did in hers.”

Who Was Florence Nightingale?

39bBorn into a wealthy British family in 1820, Florence Nightingale believed God had called her to help others. She trained as a nurse despite her parents’ objections, becoming 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. She later opened a training school, wrote many books, and revolutionized hospital planning, all of which helped establish nursing as a modern profession. Nightingale, who was honored by Queen Victoria for her work, died in 1910.

This letter is among 50 pieces of Nightingale memorabilia—mostly her handwritten correspondence to various people between 1853 and 1893—that belong to UAB and are housed at the Reynolds Historical Library. Noted Alabama-born radiologist Lawrence Reynolds, M.D., purchased the letters in 1951 from a New York bookstore, and they became part of a trove of rare books and health-related memorabilia that Reynolds and his family donated to the School of Medicine later that decade.

Preserved through the years in the UAB Historical Collections, the Nightingale letters now are the focus of a major initiative led by Doreen Harper, Ph.D., dean of UAB’s School of Nursing, in collaboration with the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences. Harper says she was “surprised and delighted” to learn about the historically significant writings shortly after she arrived at UAB in late 2005. She quickly developed plans to work with the Reynolds Historical Library, part of the Historical Collections of Lister Hill Library, to publicize the famous nurse’s insights and anecdotes.

“These wonderful letters are a tremendous resource for UAB, Birmingham, and Alabama,” says Harper. “Beyond that, we have a responsibility to share their content with the rest of the world.”

Harper plans to begin by digitizing the letters so that people worldwide can access and read them on the Internet, a process that is already under way. The second step will be to create displays based on the letters that will be set up in the School of Nursing and the Historical Collections unit on the third floor of Lister Hill Library.

Harper also plans to bring the letters to life by developing a Nightingale visiting scholar program. “This will focus additional expertise and discussion on the letters, help us better understand their context, and help us to celebrate them,” she says.

Ann Robinson, director of development for the School of Nursing, is coordinating efforts to raise the funds necessary to support the initiative. Robinson says she invites inquiries from individuals who want to know more about the project and who could offer advice or support to move it forward.

Michael Flannery, associate director of Historical Collections, praises Harper and the School of Nursing for their initiative to showcase the Nightingale letters: “Any time you have primary resource material of a person as prominent and important in the history of health care as Florence Nightingale, you have something unique to be treasured and shared.”

— Anita Smith

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