By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai//newsin.asia
A little known fact about Florence Nightingale, “the Lady with the Lamp”, is that she was very concerned about public health in India which was then ruled by the British. In the last six decades of her life, she had written dozens of pamphlets and letters on this topic. She studied in great detail about conditions in India, especially drainage and sanitation, poverty, the plight of the Indian peasantry and prevailing land-tenure systems.
Reading these one gets insights into the severe famines and droughts, followed by bouts of pandemic, which were frequent in the Indian subcontinent during British rule. Nightingale pointed out several times that these tragedies stem from the severe taxation of the British-Indian government. She tried to find a way to improve socio-cultural conditions in India and build awareness of these among the masses in England.
The Indian sub-continent started to draw the attention of Nightingale following the uprising of 1857, when the region witnessed a radical transformation of the administrative set-up. The administrative responsibility was removed from the hands of the East India Company and transferred to the Crown by The India Act of 1858.
The high mortality rate of British soldiers posted in the Indian subcontinent awakened her to the poor conditions in the military barracks. It was estimated in 1859 that 69 out of every 1000 soldiers died on duty. Nightingale started to deliberate upon the prevailing conditions of sanitation, health and hygiene and hospitals in the military barracks.
As her attempts to collect data in England proved futile, she started to write extensively to all the barracks of India resulting in a massive amount of data regarding sanitation, health, water supply systems and hospitals. Her queries included data on sickness, mortality, age and length of service of each man and also other details like hospitals and barrack accommodation.
Given the overwhelming response she got, Nightingale submitted her ‘Remarks’ to the Sanitation Commission in October of 1861. By 1863, this was available as the “Abstract of Reports of the Royal Commission on the Sanitary State of the Army in India Vol. 1 (pp.371-462) with Observations on the Statistical Return. Vol 1”.(pp. 347-70) (published also separately).
Nightingale was very well informed about the then existing condition of sanitation and hygiene in India at the grassroots level. She wrote a pamphlet entitled: “How People May Live and Not Die in India” in 1863, followed by a chapter in the Sanitation Commission’s blue book titled: “Suggestions, in Regard to Sanitary Works Required For Improving Indian Stations” (pp- 1-37) published in 1864.
In 1865 she wrote paper for the Parliament (no. 329), titled- “Remarks by the Barrack and Hospital Improvement Commission on a Report by Dr. Leith on the General Sanitary Condition of the Bombay Army”. And finally, followed the famous “Suggestions on a System of Nursing for Hospitals in India” which was drafted for the Secretary of the Sanitary Commission for Bengal Folio. (pp. 18).
Apart from these, there were 28 publications on India, her masses, villages and the urgent need for improvement of sanitation across the subcontinent. These were pamphlets, suggestions to the cabinet or newspaper articles between 1863- 1896, including her first report on the sanitation of the army stationed in India.
Though her ‘Suggestions’ for hospitals in India were rejected for a more expensive plan, they made her a well-known figure in the health sector in India. She was often consulted in the field of medicine. She was a referee for Kadambini Ganguly, India’s first lady doctor, for a position in the female ward at the Lady Dufferin Hospital in Kolkata in the 1880s. Florence thought the appointment was an important and inspiring step.
She corresponded with Prasanna Kumar Sen, a Vakil and Attorney in the Calcutta High Court between 1878-82 on the disastrous impact of heavy taxation on the peasantry. The health and living conditions of the peasants would improve only if taxation pattern was looked into, she urged. These letters were later compiled and published as “Florence Nightingale’s Indian Letters- A glimpse into the agitation for tenancy reform, Bengal, 1878-82”. The publication also contains detailed information about Nightingale’s other publications concerning India as well as a history of the rent-tax prevailing in those times. The book was compiled, edited and published by Priyaranjan Sen, the son of Prasanna Kumar Sen and was published in Kolkata in 1937 (from 1, Dover Lane, Ballygunge). Nightingale had provided for the publication of these letters in her will in 1896.
She figured out that as people are exposed to improper sanitation and poor water supply, they were unfit for work and unable to pay taxes. Though she got her memorandum signed at first, it was rejected by the Government of India. This was the last of the initiatives of Florence Nightingale towards improving the health and hygiene of India. Bedridden for long, she breathed her last on August 13, 1910 when she was 99.