Category Archives: Nursing

“In War, Resolution; In Defeat, Defiance; In Victory, Magnanimity; and in Peace, Good Will.” Honor to All this Anniversary of D-Day


In honor of today’s day in history, we thought we’d show some of the most interesting World War II items to come across our shelves in the recent past. And to remind ourselves of these words by Winston Churchill… “In Victory, Magnanimity; and in Peace, Good Will.” – as it is sound advice for all seasons, not merely during wartime. Click on the images for more information.


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This pictorial review of the time the 2nd Marine Division spent in Occupied Japan, with their “missions of surveillance, disposition of materiel, and repatriation …” [Smith, Securing the Surrender] is dated from one image “Preparing for the Corps’ 170th Birthday” [USMC founded November 10, 1775]. See it here.



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A beautifully preserved piece of WWII nursing history – the Cadet Nurse Corps program was passed by Congress unanimously and became effective in July of 1943. The Corps was supervised by the United States Public Health Service to (hopefully) train 124,000 young women as nurses during World War II. The war ended before the first Cadets graduated and only a few entered the military. However, in its lifetime (1943-48) it was the largest training program in the history of nursing in the United States. See it here.



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This invaluable source for local history (local being the central coast of California) at the end of World War II… a collection of 30 issues of the Cooke Clarion – detailing happenings at the military training base and disciplinary barracks from 1945-1946. The copies have the usual camp activities, but also includes such informative pieces as “Camp Cooke History … Here’s Chapter 2” [Vol V – Number 3, March 29, 1946]. See it here.



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This World War II Class Book was printed in 1944 and comes from Ryan Field, in Hemet, California – the 5th A.A.F.F.T.D. Illustrated with both drawings and photographs, it is an interesting piece of printed WWII history from California. Plus it isn’t found on OCLC! See it here.



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This interesting WWII archive is from Lt Wesley Dawe, from San Francisco, who served in the Army Air Corps during WWII, ultimately flying the B-17-G. Dawe collected a number of items documenting his early aeronautical career, primarily from the pilot training days of his second enlistment [his first stint was 1938 – 1941, mustering out ~ 6 months before Pearl Harbor; he re-upped in 1943]. See it here.




New Acquisitions for Your Viewing Pleasure

The recent fairs have given us a fair amount (pun intended) of new inventory! As we haven’t posted one in a while we thought it might be nice to give you an in-depth look at some of our latest and greatest… though there are many more ready to go home with their new owners! Check out our website’s categories for more info on these and other awesome titles.

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We would be remiss in sending our hometown book fairs love without beginning this blog with one of our favorite local finds! DeWitt’s Guide to San Francisco was published in 1900, and is illustrated by nearly 20 engravings! The city guidebook lists tourist sights, hotels, restaurants, banks, businesses, churches, clubs, schools, etc. Love San Francisco? Perhaps you should see what has changed in the last 118 years! See it here.

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This cabinet card photograph depicts three young girls, most likely of the Utes tribe, where they resided in the southern end of Colorado. The photograph itself is circa 1890s, when the town of Rouse, Colorado (now a ghost town) was home to, what was in 1888, the largest coal mine in the state. View this amazing piece of 19th century photographical history here.

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This 1890 edition of The Care of the Sick has a beautiful gilt illustrated binding – and is a solid Very Good copy of this handbook for Nurses, detailing care for the ill both at home and in the hospital. You love nursing material as much as we do? Check it out here!

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We also have a pretty spectacular collection of children’s series books – Nancy Drews, Tom Swifts… Hardy Boys? All can be found on our website and on our shelves! Some series books are not quite so well known as these, however… like this copy of The Bobcat of Jump Mountain. Part of the Boys’ Big Game Series, this title was published in 1920 and our copy still has its original dust jacket! Did we mention it is signed and inscribed by the author, the year of publication? See it here.

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Now this may look like nothing special, but in fact these two volumes make up a first US edition of Oliver Twist… and we would be remiss Dickens specialists indeed if we did not include one of his titles in this list! Now certainly Oliver Twist needs no description to provide its storyline or enforce its importance… so let’s just say that this rare set is not often offered in the trade. See it here.

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Kind of a strange leap from our classic main man, but here offered as well is a 1941 1st edition of rogue author Henry Miller’s The World of Sex. Bibliographers Shifreen & Jackson have speculated that the 3 states of the first [ours given priority] runs of this work may each have had a run of 250 copies. This first state binding is increasinly uncommon, especially in its original jacket – as ours is! Expand your horizons here.

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And while we’re on the subject, here is another fun find from the fairs! We almost feel like the mid 20th century Gilbert Vitalator requires no explanation except for their own marketing! With this vibrator attached to your fingers… “…you’re ready for the thrill of your life. Press your fingers against your body on the spot you wish to massage, and flip the switch. Things happen quickly here, but they can be explained slowly. The Vitalator sets up a vibration which travels to your finger tips and flows through them to your body. But it is not merely a vibration. If you had a pencil in your fingers, set to paper, it would be tracing tiny ovals with lightning rapidity. This rotary movement – this “Swedish massage” action – in the secret of Vitalators superior benefits.” Woohoo! Can be used by men and women, apparently. See this funny body massager here

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This poem, Dickens in Camp was written by Bret Harte shortly after Dickens’ death in the 1870s. Published in a fine press edition in 1923 by John Henry Nash in a run of only 250 copies… and it is signed by the famous publisher! Check out this wonderful tribute to our main man here.

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This Red Cross WWII campaign promotion poster advertises Toys for Kiddies – an initiative where patients in military hospitals designed and created handmade toys for children in homes and orphanages at Christmastime. With the materials provided by the Red Cross, apparently the men spent months making and competing to produce the most creative children’s toy of the season. See this 1940s broadside here.

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Last but not least, we offer as a tribute to the wonderful OZ themed California fair just a couple weeks ago this beautiful 1st edition, 1st printing of Frank L. Baum’s The Woggle – Bug Book, inscribed by the author to one Ruth Bailey Ingersoll in 1905 – the year of its publication. Said by bibliographer Bienvenue to be “remarkably difficult for collectors to find, particularly in good condition. … the large book is one of the most delicate and ephemeral of all Baum’s publications”, we are lucky enough to offer a very pleasing Very Good copy of this unusual early Baum title here at Tavistock Books! Check it out here.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief list of some fun new items on our shelves! Stay tuned throughout the rest of book fair season to see more of them.



(SPOILER ALERT) Antiquarian Nursing Material Isn’t Just for Nurses

We recently wrote a short and sweet blog post on “Why You Should Be Collecting Antiquarian Cookery.” Now, we do enjoy getting Cookery items in and we do have quite a bit of knowledge around them, but technically speaking, cookery is not one of our ‘specialties’. However… Nursing is. We often have customers exclaim surprise at our little-known specialty, followed by a slightly confused look as to why we might carry such things. You yourself might be wondering how many nurses are also antiquarian book collectors. We must confess that we do not know those numbers. (However, if you know those numbers, please feel free to share.) So for this week’s blog post we thought we would share why you don’t have to be a nurse to collect antiquarian nursing material!

Before you remind us, yes, Vic began collecting nursing material because his wife, Ellen, was a head nurse! So yes, occasionally there are nurses involved. Just thought we would get that over with before we get any “Wait up, we know that Ellen was involved in that field…” emails. However, Vic knowingly went into the field, as he realized that there weren’t many out there specializing particularly in nursing material over a more generalized medical genre.

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Although the U.S. Army Medical Department was one of the slowest to integrate women, when over 5,000 of its combat-ready men — including many trained technicians and orderlies — were forced to transfer to the Infantry in early 1944, the department began a major push to recruit women to fill the positions. The Female Medical Technician campaign, as pictured here, was hugely successful. See this Fine condition WWII poster here.

Nursing material tells us about just as much of history as other items in the medical field. Nurses were often called upon to step in and help in times of war and devastation, and, in some instances, were in even higher demand than doctors. Antiquarian nursing material often teaches the reader (albeit briefly) the best ways to care for wounds, different illness, and even mental “defects”. They are particularly interesting as, despite what western medicine looks like today, many antiquarian nursing items were published before the heavy use of medication. Nursing materials can teach how to care to the sick without Advil – which many would argue is more important than knowing how to hand over a pill!

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Check out this 1804 1st US edition of FRIENDLY CAUTIONS To The HEADS Of FAMILIES And OTHERS, Very Necessary to be Observed in Order to PERSERVE HEALTH And LONG LIFE: with Ample Directions to NURSES WHO ATTEND The SICK” – a manual for nurses from over two centuries ago! See it here.

Antiquarian nursing items are therefore of interest to any of those looking to see cultural and scientific differences in levels and quality of medical care over the past two hundred years. It is also interesting to use the materials to see how nurses were trained, what they were trained in, and what they were called on to do. Now if you don’t find that interesting, then we don’t know what else to tell you!

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Check out this 1868 1st edition of “On Nurses and Nursing by Dr. Horatio Storer – a leading physician in the 19th century who, in 1857, started the “physicians’ crusade against abortion” both in Massachusetts and nationally, and persuaded the American Medical Association to form a Committee on Criminal Abortion. The Committee Report was presented at the AMA meeting in Louisville, Kentucky in 1859 and accepted by the Association. Woah! Check it out here.


Who cares that Gold was found near Sacramento? Check out these Gems we Mined at the Sacramento Antiquarian Book Fair…

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Circa 1869, this pamphlet titled “God is Love. A Sermon” was authored by George Storrs – one of the leaders of the Second Advent movement, affiliated with William Miller and Joshua V. Himes. After a fair amount of study, Storrs preached to some Adventists on the condition and prospects… for the dead. OCLC records no copies of this pamphlet, nor is it found in the NUC! See more on it here>




Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 6.38.53 PMThis set of 5 Nursing Student journals were written between 1923 and 1926 by one Mildred Godwin, a class of ’26 nursing student at Crozer Hospital, Chester, Pennsylvania. Within these journals the young lady records diverse class notes beginning in September of 1923 from lectures by her professors – Dr. Crowther, Miss Burkhard, Dr. Gray, etc. The subject of her entries range widely across the medical spectrum, from items such as Social Service to “Why Cases are Referred.” A very interesting archive of post WWI nursing education! Check it out here>


Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 10.05.56 AMThis is no ordinary promotional photograph album or scrapbook… at least, not in terms of subject! The Alaska Blue Fox Company seem to have produced this interesting documentary album, providing an invaluable historical look at a very successful fox farming venture (yes, you read that correctly. No, there’s nothing I can do about it) on Bushy Island, in the Southeast Alaska Islands. After WWI there was a rise in fur prices, giving some eccentric entrepreneurs an opportunity to lease the island in the Tongass National Forest off the coast of Alaska and stock it with some 20 breeding pairs of foxes – all for your wearing pleasure. Be unnerved here>


Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 10.06.36 AMThis 1929 Promotional Project Photograph Album details the Western Maryland Railway – a (primarily) coal & freight hauling operation – with images of the diverse aspects & views of the port facilities & docks, of the ‘up-to-date’ buildings & even some freight moving mechanisms (spiral chutes & cranes, etc). An outstanding, possibly unique album documenting local pre-depression Baltimore history, as well as the capital improvement efforts of one of Maryland’s major transportation firms! Love automotive and locomotive history? This is the album for you…


Top Ten Blog Posts of All Time

This month has been a big one here at Tavistock Books! We celebrate our 25th anniversary, along with the one-year anniversary of fearless Aide-de-Camp Margueritte Peterson. We’re also proud that this month we hit the 10,000-visitor mark for our blog. To recognize this occasion, we humbly present the top ten blog articles of all time. Hope you enjoy reading!

Dickens_Great_Expectations_Confederate_Edition1. The Two Endings of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

When Charles Dickens finished Great Expectations and sent it off to his publishers, he was quite pleased with himself. Then he showed a copy to friend and fellow author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who, according to Dickens, “was so very anxious that I should alter the end…and stated his reasons so well, that I have resumed the wheel, and taken another turn at it.” The book’s dual endings present complications for critics and collectors alike. Read More>>

2. Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas? 

For the Victorians, Christmas wasn’t complete without a great ghost story! Charles Dickens certainly catered to this preference with his beloved Christmas Carol and a number of other Christmas tales. But why ghost stories? The holiday–once forbidden by Oliver Cromwell–has its roots in pagan rituals, which included telling “winter’s tales,” that is, ghost stories. Read More>>

Edith_Cavell_Crime_Des_Barbares3. Edith Cavell: Nurse, Humanitarian, and…Traitor?

Edith Cavell quickly earned a reputation as an excellent nurse, and during World War I she found herself with another set of duties. Along with other nurses, Cavell was recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service to collect information about the Germans. She eventually put that mission aside, preferring to funnel British and French soldiers to neutral Holland. Cavell raised suspicion, and the Germans arrested her for treason. Cavell was convicted and executed, a move that provided plenty of fodder for British and American propaganda machines. Read More>>

4. Alexander Pope’s Legacy of Satire and Scholarship

History has not always been kind to Alexander Pope, and neither were his contemporary critics. The poet published his earliest extant work at only twelve years old and went on to found the Scriblerus Club alongside celebrated authors John Gay and Jonathan Swift. Thanks to the guidance and support of Swift, Pope was able to do what few authors of the era managed to accomplish: he made a comfortable living with the pen, mostly due to his ingenious translation of Homer’s Iliad. Read More>>

5. A Brief History of Propaganda

Propaganda has existed for ages; the Behistun Inscription, written around 515 BCE details King Darius I’s glorious victory. But the Catholic Church gave us the word itself and formalized the use of propaganda, most notably when Pope Urban II needed to bolster support for the Crusades. The literacy boom of the nineteenth century actually drove the production of more propaganda, as politicians had to sway the opinions of a more informed public. World War I saw the first large-scale propaganda production. Britain even enlisted its best authors, like AA Milne, to create pro-war propaganda. Read More>>

6. Charles Dickens Does Boston

Charles Dickens’ first trip to America began promisingly enough; he was immediately mobbed by adoring fans. Dickens fell in love with Boston, declaring the city “what I would like the whole United States to be.” But the trip turned sour when the young author insisted on addressing the issue of international copyright law at every turn. He was also appalled by the way slavery was practiced in the South and by Americans’ lack of social graces. Dickens documented his impressions of the United States in American Notes, which immediately alienated his Continental readers. Read More>>

Beardsley-Salome-Wilde7. Oscar Wilde, Dickens Detractor and “Inventor” of Aubrey Beardsley 

We remember Oscar Wilde just as much for his oversize personality as we do for his authorial excellence. Wilde’s ego often led to strange relationships with fellow authors, most notably Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, and Aubrey Beardsley. Wilde lost a love to Stoker, railed against Dickens’ sentimentality, and claimed that Beardsley had Wilde to thank for his career. For rare book collectors, Oscar Wilde epitomizes the way that single-author collections can (and should) include works by other authors. Read More>>

8. The Six Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe called his time “the epoch of the hoax,” and the horror writer couldn’t have been happier about it. Poe was a great lover of hoaxes, even attempting several himself. He forged a note from a supposed lunar inhabitant and penned a fake journal from an explorer. Poe even undertook one hoax to dissuade people from going West during the Gold Rush. But Poe’s efforts only proved that he should have stuck to poetry and fiction; he hardly convinced anyone that his hoaxes were real. Read More>>


From ‘The Cruikshankian Momus’ by Isaac, Robert, and George Cruikshank

9. George Cruikshank: “Modern Hogarth,” Teetotaler, and Philanderer

George Cruikshank followed in his father’s footsteps, building a reputation as a preeminent illustrator of his time. Political from the beginning of his career, Cruikshank was openly racist and patriotic. He adopted an incredibly moralistic tone about drinking. That uncompromising campaign for temperance ultimately became a wedge between Cruikshank and Charles Dickens. After Cruikshank’s death, however, his wife discovered that he’d been leading a secret life–and had fathered eleven children with the family’s former servant. Read More>>

10. The Millerites an the Great Disappointment

The Seventh-Day Adventist Church arose from a great failure. The nineteenth century saw a revival in millinarianism, the belief that a drastic event or movement would suddenly change the course of society as outlined in the book of Revelation. William Miller stepped forward as a sort of prophet, arguing that Jesus would certainly return in 1843 or 1844. His followers, called the Millerites, embraced his predictions–until the days passed and nothing happened. They broke into a number of different sects, one of which developed into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Read More>>



Why Did Florence Nightingale Oppose the British Nurses’ Association?


Florence Nightingale devoted her life to administering exceptional medical care and to furthering the profession of nursing. So it seems counterintuitive that the luminary would have opposed the formation of an organization like the British Nursing Association; after all, the organization’s aim was to bring some standardization to nursing. But Nightingale vehemently opposed the BNA, doing everything in her power to stymie its progress.

Nursing Emerges as a Profession

Nightingale entered nursing at a time when women had few respectable employment options. The few women of the upper class who chose the occupation did it out of duty or a sense of service, rather than the desire for a paycheck. Nurses often came from the working class and had little formal education outside their nursing training, which was more hands-on training during a probationary period than book- or lecture-based instruction. It’s also important to note that the wealthy still mostly received their medical care at home, resorting to hospital care only in dire emergencies. Hospitals were used for administering care to the poor and, during wartime, to soldiers.

Thus nursing fell short of being considered a true profession; some even thought of nursing as being only slightly better than prostitution! Behavior like stealing food from patients or demanding bribes for administering care was not uncommon; nor was inappropriate fraternization between female nurses and male patients. One of Nightingale’s first priorities was to establish standards for nursing as an “art” or “calling.” Nightingale placed considerable emphasis on nurses’ morality, noting that the best nurses were kind, moral, and decent. She strongly believed that lack of formal education did not preclude a woman from making an excellent nurse, so long as she possessed these other qualities.

Nightingale spoke positively about making nursing a profession early in her career. She also took substantial steps to remove opportunities for amoral behavior on her wards. For example, during the Crimean War, Nightingale did not allow any other female nurses to stay in the ward past 8:00 pm; during the night, male patients received care from male orderlies. This practice is what earned Nightingale the nickname “Lady of the Lamp.” She would pace the ward by lamplight virtually all night long, resting only briefly, intent on ensuring that her patients got exceptional care around the clock.

The BNA Moves Toward Exclusion


The First Annual Report of the BNA

The British Nurses’ Association (BNA) was founded in 1887 through the efforts of Ethel Bedford-Fenwick, Catherine J Wood, Isla Stewart, and a number of prominent male physicians. Princess Christian, Queen Victoria’s daughter was the BNA’s royal patron. The organization changed its name to the Royal British Nursing Association in 1891 and received its royal charter two years later. Its primary aim from the beginning was to establish a national registry of nurses. To be included in the registry, nurses would have to complete their training and pass a written examination.

With the written examination, the founders’ tacit goal was to exclude working-class women from nursing–thereby raising the social status of the profession. Nightingale didn’t deny that higher social status had its merits for administrators in nursing, but she argued that working-class nurses could provide equally excellent care despite their lack of formal education. She also pointed out that nurses weren’t “dictionaries,” and that passing a written exam did not necessarily indicate that someone would make a good nurse: “Some of our best could not pass an examination with credit, while some of our worst could gain the most credible place.” Nightingale’s fundamental opposition to the BNA stemmed from their efforts toward exclusion. She advocated improving the overall quality of nursing care through better training instead.

An Immediately Outdated Registry

The BNA wanted to create a registry listing all the nurses who had completed training and passed a written exam. Hospital administrators could then use the registry as a resource to ensure that they were hiring qualified nurses. Nightingale objected to the registry for multiple reasons. First, the registry would be out of date almost from the moment of publication, as new nurses constantly entered the profession; some nurses would not even be included for years after they completed training, when a new registry was finally printed.

But the registry had an even greater flaw, in Nightingale’s eyes: no mechanism existed for removing the names of nurses who were subsequently found to be unfit for the profession. Nightingale said that it often proved difficult to fire nurses even in extreme cases, such as drunkenness on the job or egregious amoral behavior. If a fired nurse had her name printed in the registry, that would give her undue legitimacy when she sought new employment in the profession. Nightingale asked the BNA how a nurse’s name would be removed from the registry, outside of death or criminal conviction, but she never received a satisfactory answer.

Nightingale_Notes_NursingFurthermore, as it was conceived by the BNA, the registry would not indicate where or when a nurse had received her training. Nor would it list any additional advanced training she may have completed. Nightingale saw this lumping together of all nurses, regardless of training qualifications, as a fatal flaw. Training programs varied widely in technique, quality, and duration. And a nurse trained during wartime, or under a leading physician, for instance, were often better equipped to handle the demands of specific nursing positions. Nightingale argued that omitting such information from the registry made the document virtually useless.

Some opponents of the BNA proposed an alternative: issuing nurses certificates when they completed training. The certificate would indicate the date the nurse completed training and the training institution. Each nurse would bear responsibility for her own certificate, and the certificate could be confiscated if she were fired for negligence or misconduct. But the prospects of forgery and the onus of replacing lost certificates made this system less appealing to Nightingale and other leaders in the field.

Too Much Control for Doctors

Nightingale sought to make nursing an autonomous endeavor, not under the jurisdiction of physicians. She believed in creating a separate hierarchy within nursing, so that doctors did not have the power to hire, fire, or discipline nurses. Nurses would still take medical orders from doctors, but only because doctors had more knowledge and expertise in determining the best treatment for patients.

Yet the BNA intended to give one half of its seats to doctors. Nightingale saw this as directly undermining its stated mission to make nursing into a true profession. This point of contention proved one that Nightingale had to handle delicately, as she had important alliances with plenty of prominent physicians.

Nightingale Combats the BNA’s Inception

Nightingale was not fundamentally opposed to the idea of a registry. Indeed, she saw merit in the small, organization-based registries that hospitals like St. Thomas already kept. Regularly updated with dismissal information, nurse obituaries, and notices of criminal conviction, these registries escaped some of the problems presented by a national registry. (Contemporary researchers also point out that they contained a healthy amount of gossip.)

But Nightingale did object to the view that nursing was strictly a profession. She was very attached to the morality of nursing, and later in her career actually used the term “profession” pejoratively in regard to nursing. In an 1888 address to probationers, Nightingale referred to the “low sense” of the nursing profession as the “book-and-examination business.”

Nightingale went to considerably lengths to prohibit the BNA’s progress. She and her supporters launched numerous campaigns to draw attention to the organization’s shortcomings. They also pointed out that the BNA claimed to have more support than it actually did; in some cases, the BNA alleged that prominent doctors and nurses supported the organization–when they had already publicly expressed the opposite stance.

The registration issue emerged in 1887 and gathered momentum the following year. In 1889, the founder of the Hospitals’ Association and editor of The Hospital, Henry Burdett proposed the National Pension Fund as an alternative. Nightingale saw the competitiveness between the two plans as highly distasteful and opposed them both. In 1889, she helped to organize a “memorial” opposing the BNA’s receipt of a royal charter.

The House of Lords committee did not meet on the matter until 1891. William Rathbone spoke against the BNA using information supplied by Nightingale. His presentation was so thorough and so convincing that the BNA was forced to drastically revise its proposal. When the organization finally received its royal charter in 1893, the BNA had much less power than its founders had hoped.

Though Nightingale’s staunch opposition to the BNA may seem strange today, her reservations were grounded in a genuine love for nursing and desire for improvement in the field. Today we remember Nightingale as a visionary of nursing whose contributions ranged from improving quality of care, to shaping the laws that governed the profession.

Related Posts:
Louisa May Alcott: Abolitionist, Suffragette, Mercenary 
Edith Cavell, Nurse, Humanitarian, and Traitor? 
Famous Figures in the History of Nursing (Part One)
Famous Figures in the History of Nursing (Part Two)

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Louisa May Alcott: Abolitionist, Suffragette, and Mercenary

Louisa_May_AlcottWhen Louisa May Alcott published Little Women in 1868, she immediately found the fame and fortune she’d sought since childhood. The legendary author is best remembered for this and other children’s books, but her true authorial passion was for writing cheap thrillers. Unbeknownst to most of her adoring readers, Alcott undertook her now classic novels only as a means to support her family. Indeed, Alcott has proven a much more complex individual than most of us would guess.

A Childhood of Privation

Born on November 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott was the second of four daughters. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, hailed from a distinguished Boston family. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a farmer who’d educated himself in philosophy. The members of the Alcott family were quite progressive for their time. In 1834, Bronson set up a school with a controversial co-ed curriculum. He managed to find students, but the community was soon turned off by his disciplinary tactics and frank discussion of religion. The final straw was when Bronson refused to dismiss a black student he’d admitted. White parents withdrew their children from the school, and Bronson was forced to shut down.


The progressive curriculum at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School

The family remained ardent abolitionists, participating in the Underground Railroad. When she was seven years old, Alcott opened an unused stove to discover a former slave hiding inside. The man was initially terrified that he’d been discovered, just as Alcott was frightened to find a man in the oven. Alcott taught the man to write his letters. This experience and others would eventually compel Alcott to serve in the Civil War so that she could contribute to ending slavery.

Among the family’s closest friends were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Alcott grew up with their mentorship, studying in Emerson’s library and getting botany lessons from Thoreau. Despite this rich intellectual life, the Alcotts were quite poor. Bronson worked hard, but didn’t pay much attention to actually earning a living. His family often subsisted on nothing but bread and water, and they frequently moved–by the time they settled at Orchard House in 1858, the family had had around thirty temporary homes, and they could afford the home only with the support of relatives and Emerson, who wished Alcott’s sister Beth to pass her last days in comfort and security.


Fruitlands was strictly vegetarian. Residents were not even supposed to till the soil, as they might injure a worm.

When Alcott was ten years old, the family undertook a radical experiment. Bronson co-founded the utopian community of Fruitlands with English reformer Charles Lane. Their goal was to survive without animal products or any commodities that had been generated by slavery, including coffee and tea. After only six months, the project had obviously failed. The Alcotts were completely destitute, and Bronson was on the brink of suicide. Alcott resolved that she would one day be rich and famous. At first she wanted to be an actress, and she soon began writing, directing, and acting in plays.

Early Financial Responsibility

Alcott began keeping a journal when she was eight years old, and she wrote her first novel at age seventeen. Heavily influenced by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the novel would not be discovered and published until over a century later. Though Alcott wrote prolifically in her off time, she also worked hard as a teenager to help support her family. She had a series of jobs: teacher, governess, laundress, and even household servant. Her mother took work with an unemployment agency, and the family encountered women who had to take the roughest jobs. Moved by the plight of these illiterate immigrant and African American women, Alcott, her mother, and her sister Anna offered free reading and writing instruction.

Bronson, on the other hand, did little to support the family. He embarked on a long speaking tour–only to return with a single dollar in his pocket. The family, it seemed, would never escape poverty. The family’s dire straits gave Alcott a unique vantage point as a female author; most women writers of the era came from much more privileged backgrounds. It also hardened Alcott’s resolve “to turn my brains into money by stories.” In her early twenties, Alcott began writing romances for local papers. She rapidly learned how to tailor her writing for different markets and to experiment with different genres.

A Scandalous Little Writing Habit

Alcott also knew that writing such sensational stories would tarnish her own reputation, and she was not confident in the quality of her writing. She wrote these stories either anonymously or pseudonymously, thus protecting her own reputation. Harriet Reisen, author of Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women,’ noted in an interview with NPR, “Louisa made herself a brand. She suppressed the fact that she had written pulp fiction that included stories about spies and transvestites and drug takers.”

It wasn’t until after her death that the full breadth of Alcott’s work was revealed. But Alcott found writing such potboilers quite thrilling, admitting that when she wrote them she slipped into a kind of “vortex” where time, food, and sleep simply didn’t exist. Scholars hypothesize that these stories were also an excellent outlet for Alcott, who never married and spent much time worrying about her family’s well-being.

Heeding the Call to Duty

Then the Civil War broke out in 1861. Alcott reported to the Concord town hall, where she sewed uniforms and made bandages. As soon as she turned thirty, Alcott entreated family friend Dorothea Dix to let her become a field nurse even though she wasn’t married. Dix relented, and Alcott went to Washington, DC, where she ministered to soldiers after the Battle of Fredricksburg. Alcott fell prey to pneumonia and typhoid fever, cutting short her tenure as a nurse. Her treatment included doses of calomel, which contained mercury. It left Alcott weak and sickly for the rest of her life.

Unable to continue serving as a nurse, Alcott decided to support the war effort through her writing. She adapted her letters home into Hospital Sketches, and the book immediately became a bestseller. It represented a dramatic departure from Alcott’s other authorial endeavors–and it was published under her real name. The book’s success renewed Alcott’s confidence and resulted in new interest in her writing.

A Parisian Affair

Alcott had always wanted to travel, and in 1866, she had the opportunity to travel to Europe as a companion to an invalid. In Switzerland, she met Ladisas Wisniewski, a Polish freedom fighter who was thirteen years her junior. The pair managed to overcome the language barrier, passing a fortnight together in Paris. Cavorting with a twenty-year-old man without a chaperone certainly raised a few eyebrows, but Alcott dismissed the allegations of impropriety, pointing out that she was 33 years old.

Alcott affectionately called Wisniewski “Laddie,” and he would be one of the inspirations for the character of Laurie in Little Women. The other was Alf Whitman, who was also much younger than Alcott. The two met at the Concord Dramatic Union (now the Concord Players), where they played Dolphus and Sophy Tetterby in Charles Dickens’ Haunted Man. Alcott doted on Whitman, and the two remained friends long after Whitman had married and had children. Alcott wrote to Whitman, “I put you in my story as one of the best and dearest lads I ever knew. ‘Laurie’ is you and my Polish boy [jointly].”

Challenging Gender Stereotypes

Though Alcott would have multiple ambiguous relationships with younger men, she claimed never to have loved them. In an 1883 interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, Alcott said, “I am more than half persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body…because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least with any man.”

Alcott’s choice to remain a spinster was an unusual one for the time, even for a woman who had become a caregiver to her family. Yet Alcott had seen how dependent her mother had been on her father–and how poorly her father had provided for the family. “I’d rather be a spinster and paddle my own canoe,” she once wrote. That same sense of independence drove Alcott to campaign tirelessly for women’s suffrage. She attended the Woman’s Congress of 1875 in Syracuse, New York. In 1879, Alcott successfully campaigned for women’s suffrage in the election of the Concord school committee. The men of the town boycotted the vote, and Alcott was one of twenty women to cast a ballot.

Resigned to Writing “Moral Pap”

Alcott returned from Europe to find her family, predictably, in debt. Now able to “earn more from my pen than from my needle,” Alcott decided to write her way into fortune. She wrote in her journal in May, “Father saw Mr. Niles [of Roberts Brothers publishing house] about a fairy book. Mr. N wants a girls’ story, and I began Little Women. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this kind of thing. I never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting.”

Alcott went about Little Women methodically over the course of a few weeks, with none of the joy she found in her thrillers. The first edition was published in 1868, when Alcott was 35 years old. It met with instant success, and Alcott’s fate as a writer was essentially sealed; she would build her career writing what she considered “moral pap for the young” because that’s what would support her family. Though Alcott was not upset to be “the goose that laid the golden egg,” she took a rather cynical view of her writing: “Money is the means and the ends of my mercenary existence.”

Alcott_QuoteBecause Little Women was so obviously based on Alcott’s own childhood, her family gained celebrity along with her. Bronson was quite fond of the attention. Now wealthy and widowed, he sported fine clothes and toured the country as “The Father of the Little Women.” He started publishing (very verbose) volumes of philosophy. Alcott built him the Concord School of Philosophy, so that he could again enjoy lecturing to an audience. His exploits were curtailed by a stroke, and he was forced to retire to a beautiful home in Louisburg Square, provided by his dutiful daughter, who visited almost every day. Alcott, however, wanted nothing to do with fame–perhaps because she saw so little merit in the books that had made her famous. Tourists shamelessly came calling at Orchard House, and Alcott would often pretend to be her own maid to avoid their attentions.

Then tragedy struck the Alcott family yet again. Alcott’s sister Anna Alcott Pratt had married into a wealthy family. While she was in Europe, her husband died unexpectedly, leaving her with two small children and no income. To ensure their financial comfort, Alcott again put pen to paper, this time writing Little Men. She assigned the royalties to her nephews, who would live with her until she passed away ten years later. When her sister May died in childbirth a few years later, Alcott took custody of the infant, who was named after her. Nicknamed “Lulu,” the child would call Alcott “Mother” and live with her until Alcott’s death.

When Alcott’s own health began to fail, she sought both traditional treatment and explored alternative medicine. In 1888, she went to a Roxbury convalescent home, convinced that proper rest would extend her longevity. That March, she visited her father for what she knew would be the last time. He passed away on March 4, 1888, and Alcott followed two days later.