The Florence Nightingale Museum Director was honoured recently by an invitation to Massachusetts General Hospital in the beautiful city of Boston. The main reason for the invitation was to give the keynote lecture at the unveiling of a newly commissioned portrait of Linda Richards, America’s first trained nurse. Warren and Lucia Prosperi (http://prosperistudio.com), the husband and wife team who created this beautiful piece, work closely from original photographs and written accounts of their subject. The portrait is now displayed in the Paul S Russell Museum, part of Massachusetts General Hospital (http://www.massgeneral.org/museum)
Linda Richards was the first of four students to graduate from a nursing training programme at the New England Hospital for Women in 1873. Make no mistake – this very early nurse training was tough. Richards wrote: “We rose at 5.30 a.m. and left the wards at 9 p.m. to go to our beds, which were in little rooms between the wards. Each nurse took care of her ward of six patients both day and night. Many a time I got up nine times in the night; often I did not get to sleep before the next call came. We had no evenings out, and no hours for study or recreation. Every second week we were off duty one afternoon from two to five o’clock.
In 1874, The Boston Training School for Nurses started at Massachusetts General Hospital and Linda Richards was approached to become superintendent, initially she refused but was eventually persuaded. Like Florence Nightingale, Linda Richards was clearly a brilliant advocate, as she persuaded the senior hospital staff to lecture to her student nurses, providing them not only with important knowledge, but also increasing the students status within the hospital. Several doctors supplemented their lectures by allowing the student nurses to accompany the morning rounds of the wards. Although this work was important for the nurses – and the hospital – yet more importantly, it created a model of what a modern nursing school should look like.
Linda Richards arranged to visit England to enable her to observe the Nightingale system in action. Nightingale and Richards had corresponded for some time and one morning soon after her arrival in England, Richards was thrilled to be able to meet the great lady. With typical modesty, Richards wrote “It had never occurred to me that she would honor me by asking me to call upon her, so great was my surprise when I received an invitation to visit her at her home.” Richards memoirs relates an encounter that clearly had a huge emotional impact on her, being taken into the presence of a “small lady clad in black silk” who was lying on a coach (by this stage, Nightingale had been living as an invalid for some years.) Richards describes “The sweet face, with the deep blue eyes, and the beautifully shaped head” and says that meeting Nightingale was the fulfilment of her life’s ambition.
An excellent judge of character, Nightingale herself was equally impressed by Richards and offered to help her as much as she could. She wrote to Angelique Pringle, an old student of hers, who was at that time heading up the Edinburgh infirmary in Scotland, and arranged for Richards to go on a placement there as well. Nightingale wrote; “A Miss Richards, a Boston lady, training matron to the Massachusetts General Hospital, has in a very spirited manner come to us for training to herself….I have seen her, and have seldom seen anyone who struck me as so admirable. I think we have as much to learn from her as she from us.”
Richards’ remains rest in the beautiful cemetery in southern Boston: (http://www.foresthillscemetery.com).