ME/CFS Primer/Education Bulletins A Little Bit of History
IACFS/ME Bulletin


A Little Bit of History
Rosamund Vallings, MNZM, MB, BS

On a recent visit to the United Kingdom to attend the Cambridge conference, I spent some time in London and decided to experience a little CFS/ME history again. I had done my medical training at the London Hospital, soon after the flu like epidemic that had affected many at the Royal Free Hospital, another of the 12 big London teaching hospitals, situated in Grays Inn Road. In 1955, nearly 300 of the medical and nursing staff had remained seriously ill following this epidemic, and as we were a nearby teaching hospital, we had many of these people as inpatients for investigation. The illness was recognized as mysterious, but very real and very physical, with no psychological connotations. The term “Royal Free Disease” had already been coined, and appeared in the textbooks. The physicians under whom I worked at The London were as mystified as everyone else, as despite endless investigations and the patients often being hospitalized for weeks on end, nothing emerged to explain the persistent wide ranging symptoms. The patients often called themselves “Royal Freaks” as no-one had any answers or treatment to offer! Many of these patients have remained ill to the present day.

The Royal Free Hospital has since been relocated to North London, and the original Royal Free building is sadly now just a façade and the hospital within is no more.






The original Royal Free Hospital, 2008



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I visited both the Royal Free and The London on my recent trip. The London is still there as an active busy general teaching hospital.






London Hospital, Whitechapel

As it was close to 12th May, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, I thought it would be appropriate to visit the Florence Nightingale Museum attached to another of the teaching hospitals, St Thomas’s, which has a commanding view across the Thames to Westminster.






View of Westminster from St Thomas’s Hospital

This visit proved to be a moving experience as one followed the life of this incredible woman through a Victorian childhood to her experiences in the Crimea, her work in development of modern nursing and her final illness.

 Florence Nightingale had returned to Britain as a heroine from the Crimea in 1857. She was known to the the soldiers as they lay dying, as “The Lady with the Lamp”. She became ill at this time with “chronic brucellosis” as a follow on from “Crimea Fever” that she had contracted while serving there. She would allow no visitors as she languished in the Burlington Hotel in Picadilly. She remained confined to her room, and would not even allow her family to visit her.








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However during this time Queen Victoria invited her to establish a Royal Commission on the health of the army.

When she had still been in Turkey in 1855, a public meeting was held to give recognition to Florence Nightingale for her work in the war and this led to the establishment of the Nightingale Fund for the training of nurses. By 1859 Nightingale had £45,000 at her disposal from the Nightingale Fund to set up the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas' Hospital in 1860. The first trained Nightingale nurses began work in 1865 at the Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary.

Despite her ongoing ill health, Florence Nightingale wrote Notes on Nursing, which was published in 1860, a slim 136-page book that served as the cornerstone of the curriculum at the Nightingale School and other nursing schools established. These notes also sold well to the general reading public and are considered a classic introduction to nursing. Nightingale would spend the rest of her life promoting the establishment and development of the nursing profession and organizing it into its modern form.








Letter from Florence Nightingale

In 1883, Florence Nightingale was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria. In 1907, she became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit, and in 1908, she was given the Honorary Freedom of the City of London. Although an invalid for the rest of her life, Nightingale continued to have an influence on standards of nursing care and training. She was considered an expert on the scientific care of the sick and was asked by the United States for her advice on caring for the wounded soldiers of the Civil War.

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By 1896, Florence Nightingale was bedridden. It is thought likely she had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and we do of course celebrate her birthday as the International CFS Awareness Day. During her bedridden years, she continued pioneering work in the field of hospital planning, and her work propagated quickly across Britain and the world. Through correspondence and reports, she continued her influence throughout her last years. The International Conference of Red Cross Societies listed her as a pioneer of the Red Cross Movement. She died in 1910 at the age of ninety.


Lord Raglan visited Florence Nightingale when she was ill.

Florence Nightingale's lasting contribution has been her role in founding the modern nursing profession. She set an example of compassion, commitment to patient care, and diligent and thoughtful hospital administration. Florence Nightingale was known by the British soldiers in the Crimea as the “Lady with the Lamp” because of the late hours that she worked tending to the sick and wounded. Today, she is remembered as a symbol of selfless caring and tireless service.







Statue of Florence Nightingale in Waterloo Place London

I finished my wanderings in Waterloo Place and came upon a beautiful monument to this wonderful woman, who despite her serious ill health achieved so much. She remains an inspiration to so many, and particularly to those other sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.


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