Florence Nightingale is known world-wide as a nurse. She has been called The Angel of the Crimea and The Lady with the Lamp. In using these phrases, people take note of Nightingale’s compassion and service to humanity. Often missed is her essential mission of cleaning up. A battle for good hygiene, medical and otherwise, was at the heart of Florence Nightingale’s work. In this week’s headlines we read about yet another antibiotic-resistant bacteria that is spreading across the globe. Overuse of antibiotics is at least partly to blame, but there is also an overlooked aspect to this threat: poor hygiene.
Modern medicine relies so heavily on treatment, anti-virals and antibiotics, that the role of prevention is often underplayed. However, as Florence Nightingale knew, prevention is the first and best step in infection control. We may be facing a future that resembles the past, one in which infection rages unchecked with only our natural immunity and supportive care as a defense.
This is the environment in which Florence Nightingale honed her nursing skills. The nineteenth century had precious little to offer in the way of cure. Florence Nightingale realized that the war against disease could be won in this context only if infection itself could be avoided.
Today, perhaps the clock is turning backwards. Perhaps we, who have been spoiled by the easy access to cure, should return to the wisdom of a great nurse from the nineteenth century. Clean up; wash hands: prevent the spread of disease. This is the first and most effective step toward maintaining good health. It’s an old lesson, taught by a dedicated nurse.
We would do well to listen.