The Healing Power of Nature and Beauty: Florence Nightingale on Expediting Recovery from Illness and Burnout

“People say the effect is only on the mind. The effect is not limited to the mind. The effect is on the body, too.”

“I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains,” the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in the dawning years of the twenty-first century, “but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically.”

However, this was not an original idea. Another visionary, a century and half earlier than him, was able to see what we now call flatly. medicine — the stewardship of that intersectional wonder transpiring between the human body and the human spirit — arrived at the same conclusion.

Florence Nightingale, by Henry Hering 1850s. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

“No more childish things… No more marriage,” Florence Nightingale (May 12, 1820–August 13, 1910) resolved in her diary on her thirtieth birthday.

Within a decade, she had invented professional nursing, founded the world’s first non-religious nursing school, and revolutionized both healthcare and data science by demonstrating measurably the lifesaving power of standardized situation, which she and her team of 38 nurses had introduced in an Istanbul hospital during the Crimean War, reducing death rates in the ward by 99 percent. She devised the Nightingale rose chart to communicate her findings to an audience that was not familiar with statistics. It is now known as the Nightingale diagram. This new form of pie chart was used to visualize data and has been used by many information designers, including W.E.B. Du Bois to create the epoch-making diagrams of African American life he presented at the World’s Fair in the final years of Nightingale’s life.

Florence Nightingale 1857, Polar area visualizations of mortality rates

However, it wasn’t just standard sanitation she introduced to the hospital wards. It saved lives. Just as revolutionary was the type of patient care that made those wounded soldiers await “The Lady with the Lamp” as their “ministering angel” and prompted Emily Dickinson to celebrate her as “holy” across the Atlantic.

Years before Walt Whitman, while volunteering as a nurse in the American Civil War, attested to how “personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship [do] more good than all the medicine in the world,” Nightingale came to see compassion not as a flourish on medical care but as its most tonic offering and its primary instrument of healing. That her own life spanned more than double the life expectancy of her time and place is surely not unrelated to her uncommon insight into health, epochs ahead of her time in many ways — but most of all in her deep understanding of the dialogue between the body and the mind, in health and in healing.

Elizabeth Blackwell’s 1737 pioneering encyclopedia on medicinal plants, Red Poppy. The Nature Conservancy can purchase a printed copy.

When Nightingale’s pioneering nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London grew so successful that two new wards were built, the first thing she ordered for the grand opening were plants and flowers, knowing well that once “all the royalties are gone,” those lush blooming beauties would be “the main pleasure to the patients and nurses.”

Since her earliest days as a working nurse, a century and a half before immunologist Esther Sternberg demonstrated the link between emotional balance and susceptibility to disease, Nightingale witnessed patient after patient receive flowers “with rapture” — a brightening of spirit that very clearly uplifted their total state of being, allaying their physical suffering in measurable ways:

The rapture experienced by fever patients when they received a bouquet of brightly-coloured flowers will be etched in my mind forever. In my case, I recall a bouquet of wild flowers being sent to me and the rapid recovery.

Wildflowers by Nightingale’s contemporary Clarissa Munger Badger, whose botanical paintings of flowers inspired Emily Dickinson. This print is also available as stationery cards and a printed copy. All proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

These observations were formalized in her second edition of Notes on Nursing: How It Is and What It Does Not. This revolutionary book was published in 1861. Queen Victoria received a copy. In it, under the heading “Flowers,” Nightingale admonishes against one of the commonest and gravest mistakes in healthcare:

This is the perfect example of the folly and ignorance that rule the sickroom: While the nurse may leave the patient in an atmosphere where they can cause harm, the best thing to add to it is carbonic acid. [carbon dioxide]On the grounds of infirmity, she’ll deny him a glass or two of cut flowers, or even a plant. Now, no one ever saw “overcrowding” by plants in a room or ward. They also don’t poison any fly with the carbonic acids they emit at night. They actually absorb carbonic acids and release oxygen in cramped rooms. Also, cut flowers can also be decomposed and make oxygen gas. There are some flowers that can actually depress your nervous systems, like lilies. They can be easily identified by their smell, and should not be taken.

Long before neuroscience began intimating that consciousness is not a brain function but a full-body phenomenon, long before psychology and physiology entwined to illuminate how the body and the mind converge in the healing of trauma, Nightingale — whose very being was imprinted with a cherishment of flowers by the name her parents had given her — writes:

Some people believe that the effects are only for the mind. The effect is not limited to the mind. It also has an effect on the body. We know very little about how form and colour affect us, but we do know that these effects have a physical impact.

Light distribution on soap bubble from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. This print is also available as a mask for the face.

Once again ahead of her time, she extends especial compassion to patients suffering from what we call mental illness, now classify along an increasingly elaborate spectrum of disorders, then crudely labeled as hysteria or melancholy or simply (and punitively) insanity — patients doubly anguished by their powerlessness to intercept their own dark spirals of thought, for which beauty and light provide such sanative interception. Noting that the sick “suffer to excess from mental as well as bodily pain,” Nightingale writes in her nursing manual:

Your patient will be freed from any arguments better than any argument if he can use colour and form.

Writing at the dawn of self-help as we now know it, when the pseudoscience of “positive thinking” was just beginning to intoxicate the modern mind as the snake oil of our time, Nightingale inverts the premise and, anticipating William James’s landmark theory of how our bodies affect our feelings by a quarter century, writes:

The mind’s effect on the body is the subject of volumes. It is generally true. However, it would be nice to know more about how the mind and body interact. However, you are capable of walking up every day despite being overwhelmed by your cares. [the street], or out in the country… you little know much your anxieties are thereby lightened; you little know how intensified they become to those who can have no change, how the very walls of their sickrooms seem hung with their cares, how the ghosts of their troubles haunt their beds, how impossible it becomes for them to escape from some pursuing thought without some help from variety.

Floral Belles posy made from various flowers purchased from Floral Belles at the Green-House and Garden of Clarissa Munger Badger. This print is also available as stationery cards and a printed version. All proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

Devoting an entire section of the book to variety, Nightingale notes that longtime nurses and long-term patients share in knowing just how immensely “the nerves of the sick suffer from seeing the same walls, the same ceiling, the same surroundings” during long convalescence. The debilitating effects of monotony can be countered by Nightingale.

People who suffer from severe pain often feel more cheerful than those suffering from nerve debility. This is usually due to their enjoyment of short periods of relief. My belief is that patients with severe pain are more cheerful than those who can be moved around and have a variety of things to distract them.

The nervous frame really suffers as much from this as the digestive organs from long monotony of diet, as, e.g., the soldier from his twenty-one years’ “boiled beef.”

She makes a special case for the vivifying power of color, insisting that a patient’s craving for beauty is not a mere whim but both an indicator of their psychological inclination toward recovery and a very real physiological need signaled by the body along its trajectory of healing:

Beautiful objects, variety and brilliancy in colour can have a devastating effect on the sick. Such cravings are usually called the “fancies” of patients. And often doubtless patients have “fancies,” as, e.g., when they desire two contradictions. But, much more often, their (so-called) “fancies” are the most valuable indications of what is necessary for their recovery. And it would be well if nurses would watch these (so-called) “fancies” closely.

Goethe’s color wheel from his 1809 psychological theory of color. Prints available.

Nightingale offers her solution to nervous prostration, burnout, and other problems half a century ago when she notes how bright and warm colors can invigorate and make us feel better.

It is possible to relieve this state by giving them a nice view and a variety of flowers. One can see that many people feel stimulated by looking at bright colors, and exhausted from seeing deep blue. It is often alleviated by light alone. The craving for “the return of the day,” which the sick so constantly evince, is generally nothing but the desire for light, the remembrance of the relief which a variety of objects before the eye affords to the harassed sick mind.

For the rest of her life, she continued to advocate for and elaborate on these ideas. In 1892, already one of England’s most prominent public figures, Nightingale was asked to contribute the entry on nursing for one of the era’s most popular encyclopedic dictionaries. Under the heading “NURSES, training of,” after detailing various essentials of the skilled healthcare practitioner ranging from hygiene to dress, she writes:

Second only to air is light as an essential for growth, health and recovery from sickness — not only daylight, but sunlight — and indeed FreshSun-warmed, sun penetrated air is required. This should be meant to include colour, pleasant and pretty sights for the patient’s eyes to rest on — variety of objects, flowers, pictures. The effect can be described as having a positive impact on your mind. It is true, however the wise physician says it has a negative effect on the body. The sun can be both a sculptor or a painter. They were correct about Apollo.

“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric” from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. Available as both a printed version and as an embroidered mask.

My favorite reflections of her on nature’s healing powers comes from the letter she wrote shortly after her eighth birthday in the first year the twenty-first century. It summarizes her experiences with nursing and life. Is there something about the fact that great minds are able to distill their lives-advice at eighty? Winkingly addressing the nursing staff at St. Thomas’ Hospital as her “dear children,” for they had affectionately called her their “mother-chief” throughout her long service, Nightingale writes:

It has been a great time for nursing. One of my great friends, and a very impressive doctor, died. He introduced some new ideas regarding consumption. This could be described as the curse of England. His own wife was what is called “consumptive,” i.e., she had tubercular disease in her lungs. He said to her: “now you have to choose: either you must spend the next six months in your room. Or you must garden every day” (they had a wretched little garden at the end of a street) “you must dig — get your feet wet every day.” She chose the latter, became the hardiest of women and lived to be old.

Begin with the contributions of two centuries worth of artists and writers on gardening’s creative and spiritual benefits, Ellen Meloy and V on Eve Ensler’s life-saving tree. Then revisit the spacetime serenade about flowers and the meanings of life featuring Emily Dickinson, Michael Pollan and The Little Prince.

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