Surgical Spirit: Second Fiddle

Ruth Eardley is a GP and member of Affinity partner Little Hill Church, Leicester. She writes a regular piece for her church entitled 'Surgical Spirit'. We have been given permission to reproduce them. This is her latest contribution:

"I was cupbearer to the king" (Nehemiah 1:11).

Florence Nightingale was an amazing woman. In 1860 she opened the world’s first professional school of nursing at St Thomas’ Hospital, London (in 2020 our Prime Minister was nursed back to health on the same site). Nursing was once considered a degrading occupation, especially for refined young ladies like Florence. Her well-to-do family were living in Florence, Italy, when she was born in 1820 and that is where she got her name.

Florence believed God had called her to nursing. She endured great hardships and achieved great things. Her pioneering work saved thousands of lives, not only in the filthy, rat-infested wards at Scutari where she transformed the survival rate for wounded soldiers from the Crimean War, but also back in England where her reforms revolutionised medical care. And did she do it all by herself? She did not.

Florence was an invalid for decades after returning from the Crimea but she had an entourage of helpers to put her plans into action. Her faithful Aunt Mai attended to her personal needs; a Victorian expert on sanitation, one Dr Sutherland, sacrificed virtually the whole of his professional life to be her private secretary, and, at the War Office, that God-fearing nobleman Sidney Herbert was her right-hand man. Can you see what I am saying?

Nehemiah was cupbearer to the King. This was the Persian King Artaxerxes who astonishingly gave Nehemiah his blessing to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Artaxerxes was a despot but Nehemiah served him faithfully and God was honoured.

Florence Nightingale was a despot, too. She was an exacting workaholic who "accepted no excuses, made few allowances and sometimes assumed that those who worked with her had nothing else to do". (1) She did not mince her words, pouring a torrent of scorn even upon her devoted supporters if she thought they were slacking. She certainly got things done!

Florence could not exercise political power – she was a woman. But Sidney Herbert, the master of a stately home, handsome, rich, educated and a respected cabinet minister, submitted his will to hers for the sake of Christ. He wrote, "I am more and more convinced every day that in politics, as in everything else, nothing can be right which is not in accordance with the spirit of the Gospel." (2)

Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king; Joseph was second to Pharaoh; Daniel served Nebuchadnezzar. Sidney Herbert, to the glory of God and for the greater good, did Miss Nightingale’s bidding. Are we happy to play second fiddle?

Further reflection

"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men... It is the Lord Christ you are serving" (Colossians 3:23-24)

(1) ‘The Life of Florence Nightingale’ by Edward Tyas Cook, page 176.

(2) ‘Eminent Victorians’ by Lytton Strachey, page 138.

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