One of the downsides of being a published author is the whacks over the head you’ll get from readers who are angry at you for one reason or another. And sometimes, an author just has to respond publicly, so the whacks can (for a while, at least) cease.
Recently I’ve been taken to task by a number of nurses who are outraged that in my novel The Bone Garden, a book about childbed fever, I make no mention of Florence Nightingale. Instead, my book focuses on Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and how his theory of infectiousness revolutionized American medicine. How dare I write a story focusing ONLY on a doctor’s contributions, and ignore the contribution of Nightingale?
Here I offer my defense.
The Bone Garden takes place in 1830, the year in which my character Oliver Wendell Holmes is still a medical student. The story unfolds against a background of a childbed fever epidemic. In real life, in 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes went on to present his groundbreaking paper: “On the Infectiousness of Puerperal Fever” (childbed fever) to the Massachusetts Medical Society. Within twelve years, his entreaties for medical personnel to wash their hands before attending women in childbirth were finally accepted by American physicians.
Florence Nightingale was an English nurse whose contributions to the practice of medicine were also revolutionary, leading to vast improvements in sanitation in hospitals, both civilian and and on the battlefield. Much of what she advocated came as a result of her observations during the Crimean War (1854). In 1859, her book Notes On Nursing was published, which documented her observations on the link between sanitation and health.
I hope it will be apparent to my critics that a book which takes place in 1830 could not possibly involve characters talking about Nightingale’s contributions — because those are a good 24 years in the future. Also, it was not the age of the internet. A medical breakthrough in America would not necessarily be known in Crimea or England. In fact, the necessity of handwashing to prevent childbed fever was something that had to be discovered several times over around the world. Holmes publicized it in 1843. Meanwhile, in Vienna, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was conducting his own studies on contagion and handwashing during the 1840’s. They both had to make these discoveries independently.
Even if Holmes and Nightingale were contemporaries, what one discovered would not be known by the other.
So please. Before you feel the need to write me an angry email or make an angry comment about how Gerritsen dissed Nightingale, think about the chronology. And the geography. And the fact that I can’t be blamed for not mentioning a person whose contributions were still 24 years in the future.