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This ASU professor is sharing the extraordinary and personal story of Florence Nightingale

When you hear the name Florence Nightingale, you might think of the founder of modern nursing, or you might think of the famous image of her holding a lamp amid beds of wounded soldiers. 

But, Melissa Pritchard, a professor emeritus of English at Arizona State University, goes far beyond that in her new novel, "Flight of the Wild Swan." In it, she tells the personal story of Florence Nightingale and how she revolutionized women’s role in medicine.

The Show spoke with her more about it, and why she wanted to write a book about this historic figure to begin with. 

Full conversation

MELISSA PRITCHARD: Well, I was actually in London in 2013, working on another book, when I happened to, I wanted to take a break, and I happened to see somewhere that there was a Florence Nightingale Museum at St. Thomas's Hospital in London, and I went, "oh my goodness, I have to go visit that." … Out of curiosity, I went in on a whim and I came out like this completely dedicated, "I am going to write a book about this woman," because I was so overwhelmed by what I learned about her that afternoon

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah, nothing like legend, right? Like you just know ... 

PRITCHARD: Right, the lady with the lamp, yeah. 

GILGER: That's kind of it, right? Like for a lot of us, you know, maybe that she's the founder of modern nursing, right? Like, I've heard that before about Florence Nightingale, but it sounds like she, I mean, was fascinating and incredibly groundbreaking in a lot of ways that we'll talk about in a moment. But begin by telling us a little bit about her family, her upbringing, this was like Victorian England, right? Tell us about where she comes from.

PRITCHARD: Yes, she grew up in a lot of privilege, and she met a lot of well-connected politicians, social activists, as she grew up in her family home. Her father had been at Cambridge, educated, and he was an unusual man. He was so wealthy, he really didn't have to work. So, he just did whatever he wanted. He explored various subjects in science and everything, and he decided he would teach his daughters. … So Florence received basically a Cambridge education, which then in Victorian era, the era of the high empire, a colonialist era, women were not allowed to be educated outside the home. They weren't allowed to vote or own property or speak in Parliament or anything. They really had no rights. So she received this extremely unusual education, and it's partly because her father noticed her precocity. She had an incredible intellect, even at a young age, an incredible passion for learning. Particularly, she was interested in mathematics, but she got all the, you know, Latin, French, Italian, classics, philosophy, history, everything. So, Florence, her father gave her that and then suddenly didn't want her to go out in the world and be a nurse. You're supposed to stay home. But she said, "Well, what? Why did you give me this big head?" You know? "Why did you educate me? For nothing?" You know?

GILGER: So let me ask you about that, because that's so interesting. Like her father was sort of, you know, groundbreaking in that sense, that he's giving his daughter, who shouldn't have gotten any kind of education, this Cambridge education. But then when it came time for her to, you know, when she grew up and said, "This is what I want to do, I want to go be a nurse," and in fact, she felt she was called by God, right, like her family said, "no."

PRITCHARD: That's right. She did have an experience at age 16, which she didn't announce to the world. It was kept private in her journal. She said God called to her and called her to his service, but he didn't say what form that service was to take, other than to alleviate the suffering of the world, and she finally decided that it was nursing. But in those days, we have to understand nursing was about the lowest thing you could be. No respectable woman, certainly no one of Florence Nightingale's family status, would ever have a nurse in their family because it was considered very disreputable. Hospitals were horrible places. It was about as, it was lower than being an actress, and even a cut above being a prostitute. … It was very unsavory to be a nurse. And so when Florence announces to her parents, instead of marrying some well-connected man and living an aristocratic sort of life, she says, "I'm going to be a nurse. I want to study nursing," they were horrified, completely scandalized and horrified. So, she had to overcome all of their obstacles for many years. She finally did. 

GILGER: What was it that finally made her parents change their tune, or did she just do it anyway?

PRITCHARD: Well, she was very determined, very persistent, kept asking. I think what happened was, this went on for some years till she was almost 33, a depression. She became very depressed, had a series of depressions, perhaps near suicidal at one point. I think at that point, I have a scene in the novel about it, her, her father, that made him realize because they loved her. It's not that they didn't love her. They just were trying to, you know, as parents do, they wanted to protect her and keep her safe. And he realized if we try to hold her back, we may lose her. And so he allowed her to go to Kaiser Birth Hospital in Dusseldorf, Germany, to study for the first two weeks and then four months, where she said she'd never been happier in her life. She watched amputations, she sat with dying patients, she, she was where she was supposed to be, she wore uniform. This was where she felt her purpose was beginning to be fulfilled.

GILGER: And she ends up in war zones. She ends up in Constantinople, right like at the center of one of those wars, like renovating essentially a blown-out hospital. Like this is, it's dangerous often and very difficult work she chose.

PRITCHARD: You know, she was fearless. That's, I'm, I'm in awe of this woman in many ways, the more I learn about her, but she was fearless. At Middlesex Hospital, before she left for the Crimea — a few months before she left — there was a cholera epidemic, and she went right into this hospital in one of the poorest areas of London, and nursed — most of the patients who were dying of cholera were young prostitutes, 12, 13, 14 years old — she sat and nursed them all, no fear of cholera. And then she went off to the Crimea with 38 nurses, and walked into this completely derelict, hygienically horrendous place where nobody wanted her anyway, because she was a woman, and she just turned things around. She went into the hard places. She chose suffering. She chose to go into the places of suffering.

GILGER: Yeah. So let me ask you about one of the interesting parts of writing this book that sort of struck me is that you, I know, had a lot of trouble just sorting through the massive amount of material, right, about her. Like 14,000 letters, more than 200 books she wrote, like, wild amounts of of information to go through. How did you begin to sort through that and and pick what goes in your novel?

PRITCHARD: That is such an excellent question and I think I can answer it. Yes. Not only all her writings, but all the writings about her. There was so much. At some points, I was wallowing in stuff, and I thought, "how am I ever going to, how am I going to sort this out? What choices do I make?" But what I did was, it was an intuitive process, it was really important to me that it was be fact-based, that every fact that's in there is true. But then I had to get to the emotional life. Who was this woman? So, I began with her childhood, to get to her, you know, to try to find my way in intuitively into her personality, her motives, her intelligence, all of that. So I started with that. I also have written three other Victorian era novels, so I kind of know the era. But yes, I it was not easy, because if I read everything ever written about her or by her, I'd still be here, surrounded by piles of books. At some point, I had to just, I just had to make sure that my dates were correct, the titles of people were correct, you know? All of it was correct that on that level, and then I had to get the emotional truth. 

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.