School of Nursing opens permanent exhibit of Nightingale letters

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 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

Research & Scholarship

  • UAB is NIH center of excellence for biology of aging research
    NIH's National Institute on Aging has designated UAB a Nathan Shock Center, one of six nationwide expected to provide leadership in basic research into the biology of aging. UAB will receive a five-year, $2.5 million award to establish the center and pursue its research on the relationship between energetics and aging.
    posted 22 days ago 353 views
  • When computers learn to understand doctors' notes, the world will be a better place
    By training computers to pick out timing clues in medical records, UAB machine learning expert Steven Bethard, Ph.D., aims to help individual physicians visualize patient histories, and researchers recruit for clinical trials.
    posted a while back 501 views
  • Graduate training to improve special education services gets a boost
    A $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will fund scholarships, provide research opportunities and support collaboration between UAB's schools of Education and Health Professions to improve education services for young children with disabilities. Professor Jennifer Kilgo, Ed.D., who directs Project TransTeam, expects to train 70 scholars in five years.
    posted a while back 623 views
  • Men and women process chronic pain differently
    Robert Sorge, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, is lead author of a paper published in Nature Neuroscience online that disputes the assumption that a common pain circuit exists in both sexes. New research shows males and females may use very different biological systems to process pain; the key difference appears to be in the immune system and under control of testosterone.
    posted a while back 616 views
  • Will your self-driving car be programmed to kill you?
    The computer brains inside autonomous vehicles will be fast enough to make life-or-death decisions. But should they? A member of UAB’s national championship-winning Bioethics Bowl team — and the team’s coach, a renowned bioethicist — weigh in on a thorny problem of the dawning robot age.
    posted a while back 868 views
  • “Extra costs of extra weight for older adults”

    UAB research, clinical services featured in PBS story that examines the high and rising costs of health care for obese adults as they age.
    posted a while back 1161 views
  • Smartphones are learning new tricks
    sensomatic main imageYou may think your phone can already do everything, but UAB cybersecurity researchers are adapting accelerometers, GPS chips, gyroscopes and other sensors to make phones that can read your mood, eliminate passwords, protect your bank account and more.
    posted a while back 1083 views
  • Renowned expert named inaugural director of UAB Informatics Institute
    James J. Cimino, M.D., will lead UAB's new Informatics Institute, which was established in June 2014. Cimino, who previously was the chief of the Laboratory for Informatics Development at the NIH Clinical Center and a senior scientist at the National Library of Medicine, is a national leader in the field of biomedical informatics and co-editor of the most influential textbook on the subject.
    posted a while back 1312 views
  • Research enters data-driven era
    During the past few years, technological innovations have opened up an entirely new way to approach scientific questions. Data-driven research starts with massive information sets — the genomic profiles of thousands of patients, for example, or millions of spam emails — and then searches for emerging patterns in that data. In the latest issue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s "Business Horizon Quarterly", UAB President Ray Watts, M.D., explains the way data-driven research at UAB is being applied to find novel treatments for disease, create new products and businesses and train the next generation of innovation-savvy students.
    posted a while back 1438 views