The pursuit of love and happiness

The pursuit of love and happiness

The pursuit of love and happiness was an 18th-century ideal.

Voltaire (1694-1778), the French philosopher and author was one of its chief exponents and is one of the heroes of my character Sinclair. Sinclair takes his copy of Candide, Voltaire’s satirical novel to India with him but he loses it when the ship goes down. Once he’s established himself in Tooley Street he’s quick to buy himself another copy.

Candide was an 18th century best seller. The story is about a young man who is the illegitimate nephew of a German baron. He grows up in the baron’s castle under the tutelage of the scholar Dr. Pangloss, who teaches him that this world is “the best of all possible worlds.” Candide falls in love with the baron’s young daughter, Cunégonde which does not please the baron at all and so the young man and his teacher are thrown out of the castle and their adventure begins.

The work describes the abrupt end of their idyllic lifestyle and Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment with the world as he witnesses and experiences its hardships.

The book ends with Candide, not rejecting Dr. Pangloss’s optimism outright but advocating that “we must cultivate our garden”, rather than rely on optimism alone to make it flourish. Thus, Candide rejects the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds” for the act of making the world we desire by cultivating it like a garden.
Voltaire was a man of passion and emotion as well as ideas. At the age of nineteen Voltaire was sent as an attache to the French Ambassador to the Netherlands. It was there that he fell in love with Olympe Dunover, the poor daughter of lower-class women. Their relationship was not approved of by either the ambassador of Olympe’s mother and Voltaire was soon imprisoned to keep them apart.

Writing from his prison cell in The Hague in 1713 he poured out his love for Olympe.

“I am a prisoner here in the name of the King; they can take my life, but not the love that I feel for you. Yes, my adorable mistress, to-night I shall see you, and if I had to put my head on the block to do it.

“For heaven’s sake, do not speak to me in such disastrous terms as you write; you must live and be cautious; beware of madame your mother as of your worst enemy. What do I say? Beware of everybody; trust no one; keep yourself in readiness, as soon as the moon is visible; I shall leave the hotel incognito, take a carriage or a chaise, we shall drive like the wind to Scheveningen; I shall take paper and ink with me; we shall write our letters.”

“If you love me, reassure yourself; and call all your strength and presence of mind to your aid; do not let your mother notice anything, try to have your pictures, and be assured that the menace of the greatest tortures will not prevent me to serve you. No, nothing has the power to part me from you; our love is based upon virtue and will last as long as our lives. Adieu, there is nothing that I will not brave for your sake; you deserve much more than that. Adieu, my dear heart!”

Arout (Voltaire)

His time in prison was brief. Being young and fit and the prison not so secure, he jumped out a window and got away.
Twenty years later, in 1733, Voltaire would meet the love of his life, Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet. She was the wife of an aristocrat. He, by then was by then a successful writer. Having just returned from a period of enforced exile from France for his political views Voltaire was introduced to Émilie by friends.

The attraction was immediate, physical and cerebral. He wrote of her; “That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short, she makes me happy.

Soon the pair were living together in the Marquis du Châtelet’s chateau. The arrangement suited them all. Voltaire who was a rich man paid for the much-needed renovations to the chateau, Émilie’s husband the Marquis hunted all day and at night he lent Voltaire his willing wife.

Their love bore intellectual fruits; Émilie translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica and wrote her philosophical magnum opus, Institutions de Physique (Paris, 1740, first edition), or Foundations of Physics. Her own work circulated widely generated heated debates and was republished and translated into several other languages. During her time with Voltaire, she participated in the famous vis viva debate, concerning the best way to measure the force of a body and the best means of thinking about conservation principles. Posthumously, her ideas were heavily represented in the most famous text of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.

In 1737, Châtelet published a paper entitled Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu, based upon her research into the science of fire, that predicted what is today known as infrared radiation and the nature of light.

In another publication, she debated the nature of happiness. During the Age of Enlightenment, personal happiness was one of the great philosophical themes. Many philosophers and writers studied it. There were many discourses on the subject but they were by men. Chatelet offers a new perspective on the philosophical question of happiness, a woman’s perspective. Her views on happiness were published posthumously long after she had ended her relationship with Voltaire.

Chatelet begins her work on happiness by recognising the difficulty of finding or achieving happiness due to the obstacles of circumstance such as age and other hindrances. She explains that fortune has placed individuals in specific states and that one of the most important elements in achieving happiness is not to try to change those circumstances. Chatelet’s way to happiness is to be satisfied with the condition we find ourselves in.

Happiness for Chatelet lies in satisfying personal tastes and passions and from “… having got rid of prejudices, being virtuous, getting well,….” In other words, she says it’s up to the individual to know and do what makes them happy.
I suppose that was alright for her she was a Marquise with a chateau, a husband, and rich lovers.

Her pet hate was religion which she saw as the ultimate prejudice. Prejudice she believed made people vicious and we cannot be both vicious and happy. Happiness, she believed came from virtue, inner satisfaction and the health of the soul. Finally, she concluded that happiness relied on illusion or the arts and that it was important to retain the illusions that produced pleasant feelings, such as laughter during a comedy.

Whilst I cannot argue with her view that pursuing interests, being free from prejudice and enjoying the arts all help us to achieve a state of happiness I cannot help being aghast at this very clever woman’s nativity. Perhaps she was so happy for most of her life, so happy with her studies and her lovers that she didn’t notice the people around her. Perhaps she didn’t notice the poor people who did her cooking and cleaning and grew everything she ate. Perhaps she lived life through such rose-tinted spectacles that she was blind to the routine injustice the state handed down to ordinary people and anyone who got in its way. Was Chatelet like so like so many aristocrats who met with Madame Guillotine a generation later – totally unaware of how they had created their own grisly fate? Did they not see that they had failed to ‘cultivate the garden’?

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her books are available worldwide on Amazon. 

myBook.to/TalesofTooleyStreet

Witch or Saint ? Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Witch or Saint ? Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Maria Gaetana Agnesi  16 May 1718 – 9 January 1799 was an Italian mathematician, philosopher, theologian and humanitarian.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan, to a wealthy and literate family the third of 21 children. Her father Pietro Agnesi, a University of Bologna mathematics professor, her mother was the daughter of a prosperous silk manufacturer. Maria’s father supported her learning but gave priority to his sons. She soon outstripped her brothers and she was recognised as a child prodigy before she was 10 years old. She could speak both Italian and French at five years of age and by her eleventh birthday, she had added Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and Latin to her arsenal of knowledge. She was often referred to as the “Seven-Tongued Orator”.

When she was nine years old, she composed and delivered an hour-long speech in Latin to some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day; and the subject was, of course, a women’s right to be educated.

At the age of 12, she was found to be suffering from some undefined malaise. Her ill health was automatically attributed to her excessive studying and her doctors prescribed vigorous dancing and horseback riding as a remedy. This treatment did not work; she began to experience extreme convulsions, after which she was encouraged to be moderate in all her pursuits.

But there was no stopping Gaetana, by the age of fourteen she was studying ballistics and geometry and a year later her father began to regularly include her in his gatherings which included some of the most learned men in Bologna. Here she would read papers on the most abstruse philosophical questions of the day. Records of these meetings are given in Charles de Brosses’ Lettres sur l’Italie and in the Propositiones Philosophicae, which her father published in 1738.

In 1739 two Burgundian gentlemen were passing through Milan on their ‘Grand Tour’. They were Charles De Brosses, conseiller, at the parliament of Dijon and its future president Germain Ann Loppin de Montmort, conseiller at the parliament of Bourgogne, and a mathematician. While touring the churches and libraries of Milan in July 1739 they met Count Belloni and were invited to attend a salon or conversazione at the Agnesi Palazzo. The evening was that of the 16th of July, tired and thirsty the two men arrived at the main gate of the Palazzo Agnesi. The Palazzo’s exterior was elegant but plain. They were greeted by footmen dress in grey livery and taken to the first-floor apartment via a small drawing room adorned with vivid landscape paintings. They were then led through a larger room decorated with tapestries of gold and silver where a portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and his consort for Elizabeth Christine gazed down on them. Finally, they arrived at a room with a harpsichord and decorated in crimson damask, where they were invited to sit in an audience of about 20 notable guests and served with glasses of iced water. Gaetana was there with her sister, the composer, and musician, Maria Theresa, and the conversation began when Count Belloni rose and asked Gaetana a question in Latin concerning the nature of tides. Gaetana began the discourse in the form an academic disputation putting forward ideas then dismissing them. An hour later Brosses was invited to ask a question, he decided to question her on the subject of the nature of the soul and the body and on the nature of light and colours. Then Loppin asked a question about the nature of circles and curves. When the discussion was over they were served fruit flavoured ices and Theresa played the harpsichord to entertain the guests.

In 1740, aged twenty-two, Gaetana began a period of studies with Father Ramiro Rampinelli, professor of physics and mathematics in Milan in the monastery of Olivetani of San Vittore. Rampinelli was an Olivetan monk and chair of mathematics and physics at ‘ University of Pavia. With Rampinelli Maria started to study other notable mathematicians and both differential and integral calculus.

Gaetana’s main contribution to the world of mathematics was the formula for a curve called ‘versiera’ a term derived from Latin vertere, to turn, but is also an abbreviation of Italian avversiera, female devil. Some wit in England once translated it as ‘witch’, and the silly pun is still preserved in most English textbooks. This curve appeared in the writings of Fermat (Oeuvres, I, 279–280; III, 233–234) and in the work of other prominent mathematicians. The name ‘versiera’ is from Guido Grandi (Quadratura circuli et hyperbolae, Pisa, 1703) and is a type 63 in Newton’s classification. Its principal use today is in astronomy and to show the distribution of energy in objects such as ocean waves.

With the help of fellow mathematician and astronomer Jacopo Riccati, she drafted her first book, Institutions Analytical for use by the Italian Youth which was published in Italian in 1748 and dedicated to Empress Maria Teresa. The book was well received and was translated into French in 1755 and English in 1801. In 1750, she replaced her father in teaching mathematics at ‘ University of Bologna and when he died in 1752, Pope Benedict XIV gave her a special dispensation to hold the rank of Professor but she did not take it up. Instead, she dedicated herself to charitable works; she opened a small hospital and worked there herself nursing the poor at the end of their lives.

Her religious inclinations led her to study theology in the second half of her life. She was a devout Catholic and wrote extensively on the marriage between intellectual pursuit and mystical contemplation, most notably in her essay Il Cielo Mistico (The Mystic Heaven). She saw the rational contemplation of God as a complement to prayer and contemplation.

Gaetana was the first woman to write a book on mathematics and the first to teach mathematics at a university. She was the first female professor of mathematics too although she never took up the post. Her lasting legacy is her wave, known as The Witch of Agnesi. Other honours included the dedication of one of the largest craters on the planet Venus; a metal model of a versiera is embedded in the square outside the town hall of the city of Varedo as a tribute to their most famous inhabitant and the house she lived in until she died in 1799 is now a music academy there. As a tribute to her genius several Italian cities have dedicated a street in her honour and in Merate ( LC ) there is a high school specialising in science and languages named after her.

Sources: Wikipedia and The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God By Massimo Mazzotti, JHU Press, 2012

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon 

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Amazon New Zealand

Amazon South Africa

Amazon USA

 

The girl struck by lightening found a Plesiosaurus

The girl struck by lightening found a Plesiosaurus

At the age of 12, Mary Anning was to become one of the most famous palaeontologists in the country. Her discovery of a complete Icthyosaur was probably her brother Joseph’s. He spotted what he presumed to be a head of a crocodilian in the layers of limestone rocks around their hometown of Lyme Regis in Dorset. It was only later with Mary’s help the discovered what it actually was. Their amazing discovery was not the first; partial remains had been found and described in 1699, however, it was a very important find and was soon recorded in the Transactions of the Royal Society.

Anning was born in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. Her father, Richard Anning, was a cabinetmaker who supplemented his income by mining the coastal cliff-side fossil beds near the town and selling his finds to tourists. He married Mary Moore, known as Molly, on 8 August 1793 in Blandford Forum. The couple moved to Lyme and lived in a house built on the town’s bridge. They attended the Dissenter chapel on Coombe Street, whose worshippers initially called themselves independents and later became known as Congregationalists. Shelley Emling writes that the family lived so close to the sea that the same storms that swept along the cliffs to reveal the fossils sometimes flooded the Annings’ home, on one occasion forcing them to crawl out of an upstairs bedroom window to avoid being drowned.

Richard and Molly had ten children. The first child, Mary was born in 1794. She was followed by another girl, who died almost at once; Joseph was born in 1796; and another son in 1798, who died in infancy. In December that year, the oldest child, then four years old, died after her clothes caught fire, possibly while adding wood shavings to the fire. The incident was reported in the Bath Chronicle on 27 December 1798. When another daughter was born just five months later, she was named Mary after her dead sister, she was to become the Mary Anning we know today. More children were born after her, but none of them survived more than a couple of years leaving only Mary and Joseph to survive to adulthood. The high childhood mortality rate for the Anning family was not very unusual for the time, but the relentless pregnancies and deaths must have been a terrible burden for Mary’s parents. Almost half the children born in Britain throughout the 19th century died before the age of 5, and in the crowded living conditions of early 19th century Lyme Regis, infant deaths from diseases like smallpox and measles were particularly common.

On 19 August 1800, when Anning was 15 months old, an event occurred that became part of local folklore. Mary was being held by a neighbour, Elizabeth Haskings, who was standing with two other women under an elm tree watching an equestrian show being put on by a travelling company of horsemen, when lightning struck it killing all three women. Onlookers rushed the infant Mary home where she was revived in a bath of hot water. A local doctor declared her survival miraculous. Her family said she had been a sickly baby before the event but afterward she seemed to blossom. For years afterward the townsfolk would put Mary’s curiosity, intelligence, and lively personality down to this electrifying ordeal!.

Mary’s education was extremely limited. She was able to attend a Congregationalist Sunday school where she learned to read and write. Congregationalist doctrine, unlike that of the Church of England at the time, emphasised the importance of education for the poor. Her prized possession was a bound volume of the Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review, in which the family’s pastor, the Reverend James Wheaton, had published two essays, one insisting that God had created the world in six days, the other urging dissenters to study the new science of geology. Mary, of course, grew up to confound this idea. She spent her days searching for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. She nearly died in 1833 during a landslide that killed her dog, Tray. She and her brother built up a business selling their finds to antiquarians and scientists, many of whom where clergymen then.

Mary went on to find two more species of Ichtyosaur in her life. Even with these important finds, the family was always in poverty, depending on charity, and the meager money they made from selling fossils. It was difficult for Anning to be recognised in the scientific community, being a young woman and with no education to speak of however she was befriended Thomas Birch, a fellow fossil collector, who sold many of his finds, to aid of the Anning family. This gave the family some small financial support, letting Mary carry on with her work of fossil hunting.

Mary’s big discovery came in early 1821 when she found the first Plesiosaurus, a genus of extinct, large marine sauropterygian reptile that lived during the early part of the Jurassic Period, Mary’s discovery is the only known near complete example. The drawing Anning made was sent to the renowned George Curvier, who at first snubbed it as a fake, but eventually conceded Mary was right and gave Anning the respect she deserved from the scientific community.

Her discoveries did not stop with these important specimens, in 1828 Mary found the first near-complete Pterosaur naming it Pterodactylus macronyx, this did not stick for long, however, it was later renamed by Richard Owen, Dimorphodon macronyx.

These discoveries made Anning a leading light in palaeontology. She was awarded an annuity by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1883 and was the made an honorary member of the Geological Society of London, due to her being female, she was not allowed to become a regular member. Anning died a few months after this in 1847 of breast cancer, with her obituary being published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, a society that still banned women members until 1904. She had become so well renowned that Charles Dickens journal ‘All the year round’ reported her as “the carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it.”

Sources: Wikipedia,

Illustration: Portrait of a woman in a bonnet and long dress holding rock hammer, pointing at fossil next to spaniel dog lying on the ground. Credited to ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996).

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon 

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Amazon New Zealand

Amazon South Africa

Amazon USA

 

The First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

The First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

Humble Beginnings

Jeanne Baret was born on July 27, 1740, in the village of La Comelle in the Burgundy region of France. Her record of baptism survives and identifies her as the legitimate issue of Jean Baret and Jeanne Pochard. Her father is identified as a day labourer and seems likely to have been illiterate, as he did not sign the parish register.

Housekeeper and Servant

At some point between 1760 and 1764, Baret became employed as housekeeper to naturalist, Philibert Commerson, who had settled in Toulon-sur-Arroux, some 20 km to the south of La Comelle, upon his marriage in 1760. Commerson’s wife, who was the sister of the parish priest, died shortly after giving birth to a son in April 1762, and it seems that Baret took over management of Commerson’s household at that time, if not before.

Lover and Friend

It seems Baret and Commerson shared a more than an interest in his household as she became pregnant in 1764. French law at that time required women who became pregnant out of wedlock to obtain a “certificate of pregnancy” in which they could name the father of their unborn child. Baret’s certificate, from August 1764, survives; it was filed in a town 30 km away and witnessed by two men of substance who likewise had travelled a considerable distance from their homes. She refused to name the father of her child, but historians do not doubt that it was Commerson and that it was Commerson who had made the arrangements with the lawyer and witnesses on her behalf.

Paris and a Child

Shortly afterward, Baret and Commerson moved together to Paris, where she continued in the role of his housekeeper having left his legitimate son in the care of his brother-in-law in Toulon-sur-Arroux and never saw him again in his lifetime. Baret apparently changed her name to “Jeanne de Bonnefoy” during this period. Her child was born in December 1764 and was given the name Jean-Pierre Baret. Baret gave the child up to the Paris Foundlings Hospital and he was quickly placed with a foster mother. The child suffered the fate of so many at that time and died in the summer of 1765.

The Expedition

That year Commerson was invited to join Bougainville’s expedition to circumnavigate the globe to claim territory for the French king similar to the expeditions of his contemporary the English Captain Cook. Commerson hesitated in accepting because he was often in poor health; he required Baret’s assistance as a nurse as well as in running his household and managing his collections and papers. Finally, he accepted and as his appointment allowed him a servant, paid as a royal expense, he decided to take his companion and helpmate Jeanne with him. The problem was that women were completely prohibited on French navy ships at this time. Together they devised a plan for Jeanne to disguise herself as a man and join the ship just before it sailed. Before leaving Paris, Commerson drew up a will in which he left to “Jeanne Baret, known as de Bonnefoi, my housekeeper”, a lump sum of 600 livres along with back wages owed and the furnishings of their Paris apartment.

Breaking the Rules

The pair boarded the ship Étoile in December 1766 and because of the vast quantity of equipment Commerson brought with him the ship’s captain, François Chesnard de la Giraudais, gave up his own large cabin to Commerson and his “assistant”. This fortuitous act gave Baret significantly more privacy than she might otherwise have expected on board and she did not have to use the shared heads like other members of the crew to relieve herself.

Surviving accounts of the expedition differ on when Baret’s gender was first discovered. According to Bougainville, rumours that Baret was a woman had circulated for some time, but her gender was not finally confirmed until the expedition reached Tahiti in April 1768. As soon as she and Commerson landed on shore to botanize, Baret was immediately surrounded by Tahitians who cried out that she was a woman. It was necessary to return her to the ship to protect her from the excited Tahitians. Bougainville recorded this incident in his journal some weeks after it happened when he had an opportunity to visit the Étoile to interview Baret personally.

Another account says that there was much speculation about Baret’s gender early in the voyage and asserts that Baret claimed to be a eunuch when confronted directly by the Captain, La Giraudais (whose own official log has not survived). After crossing the Pacific, the expedition was desperately short of food. After a brief stop for supplies in the Dutch East Indies, the ships made a longer stop at the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. This island, known as Isle de France, was then an important French trading station. Commerson was delighted to find that an old friend and fellow botanist Pierre Poivre was serving as governor on the island, and Commerson and Baret remained behind as Poivre’s guests, probably encouraged by Bougainville as it allowed him to rid himself of the problem of a woman illegally on board his expedition.

Assistant and Housekeeper

On Mauritius, Baret continued in her role as Commerson’s assistant and housekeeper. It is likely that she accompanied him to botanize on Madagascar and Bourbon Island in 1770-1772. Commerson continued to have serious health problems, and he died in Mauritius in February 1773. After Commerson’s death, Baret seems to have found work running a tavern in Port Louis for a time. Then, on 17 May 1774, she married Jean Dubernat, a non-commissioned officer in the French Army who was most likely on the island on his way home to France.

Marriage and Return to France

There is no record of exactly when Baret and her husband arrived in France, thus completing her voyage of circumnavigation. Most likely it was sometime in 1775. In April 1776, she received the money that was due to her under Commerson’s will after applying directly to the Attorney General. With this money, she settled with Dubernat in his native village of Saint-Aulaye where he may have set up as a blacksmith.

State Recognition of Services to Botany

In 1785, Baret was granted a pension of 200 livres a year by the Ministry of Marine. The document granting her this pension makes clear the high regard with which she was held by this point:

Jeanne Baret, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe on one of the vessels commanded by Mr de Bougainville. She devoted herself in particular to assisting Mr de Commerson, doctor and botanist, and shared with great courage the labours and dangers of this savant. Her behaviour was exemplary and Mr de Bougainville refers to it with all due credit…. His Lordship has been gracious enough to grant to this extraordinary woman a pension of two hundred livres a year to be drawn from the fund for invalid servicemen and this pension shall be payable from 1 January 1785. She died in Saint-Aulaye on August 5, 1807, at the age of 67.

Honours and Publications

Commerson named many of the plants he collected after friends and acquaintances. One of them, a tall shrub with dark green leaves and white flowers that he found on Madagascar, he named Baretia Bonafidia. But Commerson’s name for this genus did not survive, as it had already been named by the time his reports reached Paris; it is currently known as Turraea. While over seventy species are named in honour of Commerson, only one, Solanum baretiae, honors Baret.

For many years, Bougainville’s published journal – a popular best-seller in its day, in English translation as well as the original French – was the only widely available source of information about Baret. More recent scholarship has uncovered additional facts and documentation about her life, but much of the new information remained little-known and inaccessible to the general public, particularly outside France. The first English-language biography of Baret, by John Dunmore, was not published until 2002, and then only in New Zealand. Other articles appeared only in scholarly journals.

The 2010 biography of Baret by Glynis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, brought Baret to the attention of a wider audience and helped to overturn some of the old misconceptions about her life.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon 

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Amazon New Zealand

Amazon South Africa

Amazon USA

 

 

Nursing by Numbers

Nursing by Numbers

Throughout her life, Florence Nightingale’s gift for mathematics was often to be a source of frustration for her. This was because many of those she sought to influence simple did not understand numbers. In 1891 she wrote that: “Though the great majority of cabinet ministers, of the army, of the executive, of both Houses of Parliament, have received a university education, what has that university education taught them of the practical application of statistics?”

Nightingale came to prominence while training and managing nurses during the Crimean War, where she organised the tending to wounded soldiers. She gave nursing a highly favourable reputation and became an icon of Victorian culture, especially in the persona of “The Lady with the Lamp” making rounds of wounded soldiers at night. She was revered more as a representative of the female carer than the promoter of scientific medicine.

Florence Nightingale was born on 12 May 1820 into a rich, upper-class, well-connected British family at the Villa Colombaia,in Florence, Italy, and was named after the city of her birth. Florence’s older sister Frances Parthenope had similarly been named after her place of birth, Parthenope, a Greek settlement now part of the city of Naples. The family moved back to England in 1821, with Nightingale being brought up in the family’s homes at Embley, Hampshire and Lea Hurst, Derbyshire.

As a young woman, Nightingale was described as attractive, slender and graceful. While her demeanour was often severe, she was said to be very charming and possess a radiant smile. Her most persistent suitor was the politician and poet Richard Monckton Milnes, but after a nine-year courtship she rejected him, convinced that marriage would interfere with her ability to follow her calling to nursing.

In 1853, Nightingale took the post of superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street, London, a position she held until October 1854. Her father had given her an annual income of £500 (roughly £40,000/US$65,000 in present terms), which allowed her to live comfortably and to pursue her career. A year later, on 21 October 1854, Nightingale and a staff of 38 women volunteer nurses that she trained arrived in Scutari, the base for casualties from the war being waged in Crimea between the British, France, The Ottoman Empire and Sardinia on one side and the Russian Empire on the other.

Immediately, Florence calculated that deaths from disease were seven times those arising in battle and used the information to campaign for better food, hygiene, and clothing for the troops. She persuaded the government to commission Isambard Kingdom Brunel to design a prefabricated hospital to be shipped out to Scutari, though it arrived after hostilities had ceased.

Upon returning to England, Florence continued her work and calculated that, even in times of peace, mortality among supposedly healthy soldiers, aged 25–35 and living in barracks, was double that of the civilian population. She wrote to Sir John McNeill (who was conducting the inquiry into the mismanagement of the Crimean campaign): “It is as criminal to have a mortality of 17, 19 and 20 per thousand in the line, artillery and guards, when that in civil life is only 11 per thousand, as it would be to take 1,100 men out upon Salisbury Plain and shoot them.”

She bombarded the commissioners with questions about the relationship between the death rates in barracks and such factors as the provision of water, sewerage, ventilation, accommodation, and food, using a ‘coxcomb’ chart (a sort of pie chart)  to press home her points. She used her contacts to ensure that her views received publicity in newspapers. The commission reported in 1863, accepting most of her recommendations and Florence then used her royal connections to ensure that they were put into effect. Death rates fell by 75 percent.

Florence’s campaigns continued to the end of her life,1891. She didn’t get everything right. Her analysis of the 19th‑century cholera epidemics convinced her that they were caused by foul air, not polluted water and her influence was such that she probably hampered the fight against the disease. But, despite such miscalculations, she was certainly a passionate statistician and reformer.

Sources: Wikipedia, http://www.historyextra.com/article/people-history/florence-nightingale-nursing-numbers

Illustration: A portrait of Florence aged about 20 by August Egg.c. 1840.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback and Kindle.  Also available on:

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Amazon New Zealand

Amazon South Africa

Amazon USA