Florence Nightingale: The Dog and the Dream

A dog and a dream led Florence Nightingale into nursing.

Posted Jun 15, 2010

Our feelings of companionship toward dogs are strong, and sometimes can exert an influence on a person's life in subtle but lasting ways, especially when an event involving a dog takes on a symbolic meaning. Consider the case of Florence Nightingale, who is considered to be the founder of modern nursing.

Creative Commons License CC0
Source: Creative Commons License CC0

Most people remember that her life was dedicated to the care of the sick and war-wounded. She is best known for her activities during the Crimean war, when in 1854 she organized a unit of 38 women nurses. By war's end she had become a legend. She was remembered by so many soldiers for her habit of carrying a lamp at night as she visited the wounded to give aid and comfort, that she ultimately was given the nickname of "The Lady of the Lamp". After the war she established a nursing school at St. Thomas's Hospital in London, and went on to become the first woman to be given the British Order of Merit. Yet none of this might have happened except for her encounter with a dog.

Florence Nightingale was the second daughter of William Edward Nightingale and his wife Frances during a brief stay in Italy and was named after the Italian city in which she was born. She grew up in the countryside of Derbyshire, Hampshire, and in the city of London, where her well-to-do family maintained comfortable homes. She was educated largely by her father, who taught her several languages, as well as history, philosophy, and mathematics. Throughout her life she read widely, however her social life was generally unsatisfying and she felt unfulfilled.

One afternoon in early February of 1837, when Florence was seventeen years of age, she had an encounter with a dog. The animal was a sheepdog named Cap, owned by a shepherd named Roger who lived near Matlock in Derbyshire, close to her parent's home. Roger lived alone with his dog in a cottage near the edge of the woods. One day some village boys were bored and looking for "entertainment" and they noticed Cap sleeping on the doorstep. In an act of cruel mischief, they began to throw stones at him. The dog stood up to dodge the onslaught, however, one of the stones hit Cap's leg, damaging it so badly that he couldn't put it down on the ground. Despite his love for the dog, Roger couldn't survive without a working sheepdog, and he was poor enough so that he couldn't afford to keep a dog that couldn't work. Thus, with great regret, he went off to pasture the sheep by himself, and to get a bit of rope to hang Cap.

While Roger was out with his sheep Florence rode past the field in the company of a local clergyman. Since they knew the shepherd they stopped to chat for a few minutes. Florence liked dogs and had often stopped to play a bit with Cap, so she asked where the dog was. As Roger told them his story her face began to show a deep and sorrowful frown. A few minutes later, they continued their travels. However, Florence was extremely distressed by the situation, and finally convinced her companion that they ought to at least take a look at Cap and see if anything could be done. The two of them rode borrowed a key and went to Roger's cottage.

As the pair entered the room, Cap recognized them and crawled out from beneath the table to give them a painful greeting. While Florence held Cap's head, the clergyman examined the dog's leg. He explained to the young woman that the injury was not a break in the bone, as Roger had assumed, but merely a bad bruise. He predicted that hot compresses would cure the dog in a few days. Then, under his direction, Florence tore up some old flannel for bandages, lit the fire with the shepherd's tinderbox and boiled some water. She then applied the bandages, wrung out in hot water, to the injured leg.

Image from SC Psychological Ltd
Source: Image from SC Psychological Ltd

As they left the cottage to return home, they met Roger, who was walking with his shoulders slumped and ominously carrying a piece of rope. They persuaded Roger not to hang his dog and promised to return the next day to renew the compresses with fresh flannel. Two days later, they met Roger and his flock on the hillside. An excited Cap, still limping slightly, but clearly almost fully healed, bounded up to the Florence and expressed his gratitude by leaving paw prints on her dress. She looked down on the first patient that she had ever nursed back to health, and grinned happily.

The very next night, on February 7, 1837, Florence Nightingale had a dream -- or perhaps it was a vision -- which caused her to believe that she had heard the voice of God informing her that she had a mission. Perhaps it occurred simply because she was still bathed in the warm feeling from having saved Cap's life. Into her mind sprang the belief that this whole incident was a sign from God to tell her that she should devote her life to healing others. Her father, however, refused to allow her to study nursing at a hospital, so she reluctantly entered an adminstrative program where she became an expert on public health and hospitals. It would not be until nine years later that her sense of mission would return. In 1846 a friend sent Florence the Year Book of the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth, Germany. It trained country girls of good character to nurse the sick. That night she remembered that vision that had been triggered when she had nursed the sheepdog Cap, and this time she could not be talked out of her decision. A short time later she entered the institution, went through the full course of training, and began her career as a nurse. Thus a dog and a dream ultimately went on to change history.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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