Dancing With Dysentery And Friends

Florence Nightingale was as brave as any soldier

Who in their right mind would knowingly gamble with the slot machines of health and put themselves at risk of contracting a deadly disease? Well, back in 1854 this is exactly what Florence Nightingale and her team of 38 volunteer nurses did. In order to take care of the British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War, Nightingale and her nurses journeyed to the military hospital in Scutari. On arrival, they found wounded and dying soldiers squandering their lives away in appalling sanitary conditions. In fact, the risk of dying from diseases such as dysentery, typhus, typhoid and cholera was deemed 10 times higher than from battle wounds. Not great gambling odds – but the risks they took changed the face of nursing for the better, forever.

Banishing the dreaded diseases

Having the highest death count of all hospitals in the region, Scutari was a happy playground for bugs, fleas, lice, mice, rats and infection.  Poorly cared for soldiers with little access to one of the 14 baths available to the 2000 odd soldiers with no towels, basins, or soap meant that there was little hope of stopping the huge death toll in its tracks. But that she did! “The Lady with the Lamp” made a nuisance of herself and stood up for sanitation against the military moustaches. Believing that if mortality rates were to be improved, the key areas of diet, dirt and drains were to be addressed.

To this end she started off with purchases of Turkish towels, clean shirts, soap, and the basics of  knives, and forks, plates, cups and glasses. Food was shipped from England, kitchens were cleaned and hospital wards fell under the strident mops of many a nurse. Such was the noise that Florence made that a Sanitary Commission was sent by the British government in order to clear sewers and improve ventilation.

Gangrene was common on the battlefield

Expelling the ‘horrid’

Although Florence Nightingale is credited with being the founder of modern nursing, what is less well known is her work on ventilation and hospital design.

First published in 1859 Nightingale’s book, Notes on Nursing’s foremost focus is on ventilation. She writes: “The very first canon of nursing…keep the air he breathes as pure as the external air, without chilling him.”

Continually emphasising the importance of ventilation in order to ensure good patient recovery rates and the reduction of cross-infection, Nightingale was a firm believer of the invaluable work done by David Boswell Reid, who had devised specialised ventilation systems for hospitals in New York, London Copenhagen and Chicago.  These systems were based on what later became known as germ theory. This operated on the premise of both exhaled carbon dioxide and unhealthy vapours.

Extradite the air-con

Florence’s legacy can even be seen in our modern-day schools in which there are manually opening windows. During winter, windows are kept firmly shut to keep heat in and save energy, firmly ignoring the need for ventilation with resultant poor indoor air quality. How often does a parent bemoan their constantly snivelling child? A clue can again be found in Notes on Nursing:

“Oh! The crowded national school! Where so many children’s epidemics have their origin. What a tale its air test would tell! We should have parents saying… I will not send my child to that school, the air test stands at Horrid.”

As for air conditioning, Florence would consider it a crime. The reason for this is that she believed that mechanical ventilation such as air conditioning that results in constant internal temperatures is not ideal when it comes to maintaining health. She believed that in order to move closer towards optimum health we should rather mimic Mother Nature and have varying temperatures inside along with the seasons. This theory is being increasingly recognised by modern architects of wellbeing buildings as they see improved vitality of office workers.

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