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Florence Nightingale on what makes a good nurse

Updated Wednesday, 1 June 2016
In the 1881 letter to trainee nurses at St Thomas' Hospital, Florence Nightingale outlines what she believes makes a good nurse - a woman without "womanly weaknesses".

Florence Nightingale Florence Nightingale

London May 6 1881

My very dear friends,

Now once more 'god speed' to you all; my very best greetings and thanks to you all, all:

To our beginners, good courage;

To our dear old workers, peace, fresh courage, too - perseverance: for to persevere to the end is as difficult & needs a yet better energy than to begin new work.

To be a good nurse one must be a good woman, here we shall all agree. It is the old, old story. But some of us are new to the start.

What is it to  be "like a woman"? "Like a woman" - "a very woman" is sometimes laid as a word of contempt: sometimes as a word of tender admiration.

What makes a good woman is the better or higher of their nature:







her patients

Her fellow workers

Her supervisors

Her equals.

We need above all to remember that we come to learn, to be taught. Hence we come to obey.

No one ever was able to govern who was not able to obey.

No one ever was able to teach who was not able to learn.

The best scholars make the best teachers - those who obey best, the best rulers.

We all have to obey as well as to command all our lives.

Who does it best?

As a mark of contempt for a woman is it not said 'she can't obey'? 'She will will have her own way'?

As a mark of respect - 'she always knows how to obey'? 'How to give up her own way'?

You are here to be trained for nurses - attending on the wants of the sick - helpers in carrying out doctor's orders (not medical students, though theory is very helpful when carried out by practice). Theory without practice is ruinous to nurses.

Then a good woman should be thorough. Thoroughness in a nurse is a matter of life and death to the patient.

Or, rather, without it she is no nurse.

Especially thoroughness in the unseen work.

Do that well & the other will be done well to.

Be as careful in the cleaning of the used poultice basin as in your attendance at an antiseptic dressing.

Don't care more about what meets the eye & gains attention.

"How do you know you have grace?" said a minister to a housemaid.

"Because I clean under the mats" was the excellent reply.

If a housemaid said that, how much more should a nurse, all whose vessels mean patients.


Now what does "like a woman" mean when it is said in contempt?

Does it not mean what is petty, little selfishnesses, small meannesses; envy; jealousy; foolish talking; unkind gossip; love of praise.

Now while we try to be "like women" in the noble sense of the word, let us fight as bravely against all such womanly weaknesses.

Let us be anxious to do well, not for selfish praise, but to honour & advance the cause, the work we have taken up.

Let us value our training, not as it makes us cleverer or superior to others, but inasmuch as it enables us to be more useful & helpful to our fellow creatures, the sick, who most want our help.

Let it be our ambition, good nurses, and never let us be ashamed of the name of "nurse".


This to our beginners, I had almost said. But those who have finished their year's training be the first to tell us they are only beginners - they have just learnt how to learn & how to reach.

When they are put into the responsibility of nurse or sister, then they know how to learn & how to teach something every day a year, which, without their thorough training, they would not know.

This is what they tell me.

Then their battle cry is "be not weary in well doing". We will not forget that once we were ignorant, tiresome probationers.

We will not laugh at the mistakes of beginners, but it shall be our pride to help all who come under our influence to be better women, more thorough nurses.

What is influence? The most mighty, the most unseen engine we know.

The importance of onem a year or two in the work, over one a month in the work is more mighty, altho' narrow, than the influence of statesmen or sovereigns. The influences of a good woman & thorough nurse with all the new probationers who come under her care is untold.

This it is - the using such influences, for good or for bad, which either raises or lowers the tone of a hospital.

We all see how much easier it is to sink to the level of the low, than to rise to the level of the high - but dear friends all, we know how soldiers were taught fight in the old times against desperate odds, standing shoulder to shoulder and back to back.

Let us each and all, realising the importance of our influences on others - stand shoulder to shoulder & not alone in the good cause.

But let us be quiet.

What is it that is said about the learner? Women's influence ever has been & ever should be quiet & gentle in the working  like the learner. Never noisy or self asserting.

Let us seek all of us rather to the good rather than clever nurses.

Now I am sure we will all give a grateful cheer to our matron & to our home sister & our medical instructors.

God bless you all, my dear, dear friends and I hope to see you all, one by one, this year,

Florence Nightingale


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