Collecting Florence Nightingale

The Nightingale Room in Maxwell Hall, 1933, Quarterly Magazine, v. 28, n. 1 (Oct. 1933)

The worldwide celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and the parallel designation of 2020 as “The International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife” recognizes her immense contribution not just to the creation of the nursing profession but also to modern health care in general.  It seems a good time, then, to explore the origins and creation of Archives & Special Collections’ own trove of Nightingaliana, now known as the Auchincloss Florence Nightingale Collection.

Even in her lifetime, Nightingale was considered the “patron saint” of the nursing profession she created. After her death, this esteem was reflected in the creation of “Florence Nightingale Collections” of letters and artifacts at schools of nursing, especially in the English-speaking countries.[1]

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Dr. Hugh Auchincloss, 1938
Dr. Hugh Auchincloss, 1938

The origin of our own collection has a specific date and story. At the May 1932 commencement of the Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing (now the Columbia University School of Nursing), Dr. Hugh Auchincloss, attending surgeon at Presbyterian and professor of surgery at Columbia’s medical school, presented a gift of 18 Nightingale letters and two books by her on the occasion of his daughter Maria Sloan Auchincloss’s  graduation from the School and in memory of his mother, also named Maria Sloan Auchincloss.  In his letter to Dean Helen Young accompanying the donation, Auchincloss wrote that he hoped the letters would “live on and inspire those who, like their author, have felt a consecrated desire to be of service to their fellow men.”

The gift was enthusiastically received and was quickly put on display in a special “Nightingale Room” in the School of Nursing’s home, Maxwell Hall.  Additions soon came from Auchincloss, other members of his family, and from “friends of the School.” In 1933, the collection received a copy of the first edition (1859) of Nightingale’s landmark work, Notes on Nursing (we now have eight copies of the first edition, one with a gift inscription from Nightingale); the next year five more Nightingale letters were added; in 1937 Hugh Auchincloss donated more letters, including some from Nightingale’s time working with the troops during the Crimean War, and later that year his brother Charles gave an important series of 14 of her letters to Sir John Strachey on health matters in India. The first catalog of the collection, published in 1937, shows it had 76 letters, 6 pictures, and 20 books.

In 1938, Auchincloss gave the lavish portfolio of Crimean War scenes, The Seat of War in the East (1855), while Nightingale’s cousin, L.H. Shore Nightingale, donated several Nightingale titles, including the complete three volume set of her very rare philosophical work, Suggestions for Thought to the Searchers after Truth among the Artizans of England (1860).  The 1940s saw Auchincloss donate 37 letters in 1941 and another 31 in 1944 – 16 by Nightingale and 15 to her, including letters from US President William Howard Taft and polar explorer Robert Scott.

It’s clear Auchincloss didn’t purchase all this material himself.  Frequently mentioned in news of donations is that it was his brother Charles who bought letters and books which Hugh Auchincloss then presented to the School.  Others also contributed: the 1947 donation of 30 letters was, he wrote, “made possible by gifts from Mrs. Ogden Reid and Mr. Russell Leffingwell who contributed so generously to a discretionary fund” they asked him to oversee.

Hugh Auchincloss’s last donation was actually a posthumous one of eight Nightingale letters made by his widow and son, Dr. Hugh Auchincloss, Jr., after his death in September 1947. His brother Charles made an additional gift in his memory in 1949 when he presented the collection with a copy of J. Henri Dunant’s rare, privately printed tract, Un Souvenir de Solferino (1862), the founding work of the International Red Cross.

After this, donations slowed to a trickle though 1951 brought a significant gift of 14 letters by the Mount Sinai School of Nursing in appreciation of a half-century affiliation with Presbyterian Hospital’s obstetric service.  But the School at this time made significant contributions to the collection’s preservation and accessibility. In the late 1940s, they had an ingenious cabinet constructed to house the letters and books – before this many of the letters had been framed and displayed on the walls of the School’s library, resulting in a marked fading.  A supplement to the catalog was published in 1940, followed by a new, comprehensive edition in 1956.

Occasional additions are still made: in 1997 we received from a British admirer of the collection a fine copy of a first edition Notes on Nursing with a Nightingale presentation inscription; in 2003, the nursing school’s alumni association presented the collection with a copy of Our Children’s Times, or Sketches of the Past and Present (London 1856) – perhaps the earliest mention of Nightingale in a children’s book; and in 2017, while transferring School of Nursing records to Archives & Special Collections in preparation for the School’s move to a new building, archives staff found an 1868 letter from Nightingale to a Mrs. Fowler.

The collection now holds over 250 letters by Nightingale, 29 letters to her, copies of most of her published works – many of them first editions – illustrations relating to her, and various artifacts including a thermometer said to been used during her Crimean War service.  In addition, there is a large collection of records of the Nightingale Fund, a public subscription in Nightingale’s honor to raise money for the first modern school of nursing, now known as the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery in London.

The collection remained in Maxwell Hall until 1979 when it was transferred to Archives & Special Collections in the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library for better access and security.  Over the last two decades, Archives staff have worked to make the collection better known: the calendar of letters has been updated, corrected, revised and added to the website; considerable conservation work has been done; the books have been cataloged and included in CLIO, the Columbia University Libraries’ online public catalog; and a calendar of the Nightingale Fund Records created.  In addition, we have collaborated with Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center to have all of our Nightingale letters digitized and included in its Florence Nightingale Digitization Project. The collection remains one of the most important in North America.

To learn more about the collection see the complete list of the collection on the Archives & Special Collections website.

This entry is based on articles about the collection found in the School of Nursing Alumni Association’s publication, The Quarterly Magazine, 1932-1960, digital copies of which can be found on the Archives & Special Collections website.

[1] A search of Archive Grid, the online union catalog of manuscript collections, shows about 800 such collections in North America and Australia and there are undoubtedly others yet unrecorded.

Image: The Nightingale Room in Maxwell Hall, 1933, Quarterly Magazine, v. 28, n. 1 (Oct. 1933)