OUR TREASURES

Many museums around the world can lay claim to collection objects having once belonged to famous people, like Captain Cook's journals, the funerary mask of Tutankhamen or Beatrix Potter's sketches of Peter Rabbit.

The Whangārei Museum also holds an item in its archival collection which was penned by one of the most famous women in British history, a pioneering woman of the medical profession nicknamed "The Lady with the Lamp". The artefact is an undated letter written by Florence Nightingale on Good Friday to her dear Aunt Annie.

Collected by A.H Reed, this historic document is a glimpse into the personal life and writings of a world-renowned advocate for healthcare reform. Florence Nightingale was a prominent figure in nursing whose exceptional work immensely affected 19th and 20th century policies concerning sanitary conditions and the improvement of patient care.

The undated Florence Nightingale letter to Aunt Annie in Whangārei Museum's archives. Photo/Supplied
The undated Florence Nightingale letter to Aunt Annie in Whangārei Museum's archives. Photo/Supplied

The daughter of a rich upper-class British family, Nightingale was born in Italy in 1820 and named after the city of her birth. As a child she was very academic and was tutored along with her older sister Parthenhope, by her father.

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Nightingale attracted many suitors resulting in marriage proposals, all of which she declined. Though tempted by the idea of a brilliant social life and matrimony, she also aspired to achieve independence.

Her parents were angered by these repudiations leaving Nightingale feeling bitterly rejected by her entire family. In her early 20s Nightingale decided she wanted to help the sick and poor, snubbing the life of thoughtless affluence for the world of social service.

Despite her father's fierce opposition and continued disapproval from her mother and sister, Nightingale travelled to Germany where she received nursing training.

Nightingale became involved in overseeing the Turkish military hospitals during the Crimea War in 1853, where she was known as the
Nightingale became involved in overseeing the Turkish military hospitals during the Crimea War in 1853, where she was known as the "Lady with the Lamp". Photo/Getty Images

At the outbreak of the Crimea War in 1853, Nightingale became involved in overseeing the Turkish military hospitals where she became famous among the troops as the "Lady with the Lamp" because of her ward visitations in the dead of night.

As an avid writer, she publicised the appalling health conditions and physical environment of patients whom she directed there.

After returning to England a heroine, Nightingale, shocked by the abhorrent situation of hospitals, further promoted improvements in nursing and sanitation. She powerfully communicated the needs for medical reform demonstrating that bad drainage, contaminated water, overcrowding, poor ventilation and unsanitary living conditions were causing the high death rate in hospitals, workhouse infirmaries and working-class homes.

Nightingale had contracted a bacterial infection while in Turkey, known as "Crimean fever" from which she never fully recovered. By the time she was 38 she rarely left home, suffering depression and was bedridden much of the time.

The letter was collected by A.H Reed and offers a glimpse into the personal life and writings of a world-renowned advocate for healthcare reform. Photo/Supplied
The letter was collected by A.H Reed and offers a glimpse into the personal life and writings of a world-renowned advocate for healthcare reform. Photo/Supplied

Despite being confined to her sickbed, her fiercely determined and dedicated character saw her literary output continue, composing some 13,000 letters.

Being a prodigious writer throughout her life, she corresponded daily with friends, family and relatives like her Aunt Annie, with whom Nightingale had a close and warm relationship.

Her endearment is expressed in the heartfelt thoughts conveyed to her aunt in the correspondence held in the museum, while also acknowledging her struggle to put strong feelings into intelligible words. In her later years writing became more and more difficult as her eyesight deteriorated.

The family connection between Nightingale and the recipient of this letter remains unknown as does the period and location from which it was written.

Who were Page Roberts, Mrs Davies, Nancy, Mary, Jamie and Liza also mentioned in her correspondence?

Obviously more research needs to be undertaken to put this piece of history into context but that will have to wait for another time!

■ Natalie Brookland is collections curator, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.