Florence Nightingale (vs.) Oliver Wendell Holmes

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.

12 replies
  1. techiebabe
    techiebabe says:

    Hi Tess, just a quick note to say that Nightingale never crossed my mind, but your book did make me go and learn about Holmes. I’m so sorry people send you angry feedback, and I just hope that the nice emails and reviews you receive outweigh the criticism. Cheers, Flash

  2. Tess
    Tess says:

    Flash, thanks for the comment! As a writer, I never know what people are going to get annoyed by. And it’s impossible to avoid it.

  3. therese
    therese says:

    Great defense! Now if this comes up again all you have to do is send a link to this post with a cryptic – Ms. Nightingale (12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910) was 10 years old at the time of the story in 1930.

    THE BONE GARDEN was the first book of yours I read and loved it. LOVED IT!

    Which means, I’ve enjoyed Rizzoli and Isles stories too, but THE BONE GARDEN is the one I have on my keeper shelf.

  4. Cumulus
    Cumulus says:

    Tess, you are gracious in your response and lay out clear facts for the reader to understand the timeline and the period in history when this mystery was posed. I wouldn’t have had the patience nor the grace you demonstrated. Rather, I’d call such irritating readers Morons with a scarce knowledge of history and a singularly feminist bias.

  5. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:


    Repeating and expanding what I posted on Facebook. The readers who complained about a lack of mention of Florence Nightengale, great pioneer in public health and nursing that she was, totally miss the time line.

    To be blunt, it’s stupid to argue about a fact, as this critic did.

    I know you and I have differing opinions on some issues and may well cancel each other out in some votes Nov. 2 in our mutual home state.

    But this does not stop me from enjoying your books. And I suspect you know if I found a serious factual error in one of your books, I’d call you on it, but privately and in the sprit of friendship.


  6. TheWriteChris
    TheWriteChris says:

    Paraphrasing P.T. Barnum, “You can please some of the people all of the times, All of the people some of the time, and some you can never please at all.”

    The simple solution would now be to write a book about Florence Nightingale. Then the O.W.H. people could be equally offended!

    I am reading the book, Yes! You can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published and Build a Successful Writing Career by Nancy Sanders.Though it is written for children’s writers, it can apply to all writers. I will blog my reaction and results. If you would like to hear about the results in action, here is where you can read more… http://TheWriteChris.blogspot.com

  7. JordynRedwood
    JordynRedwood says:


    I’m a big fan of your novels and I find your dilemma interesting as I am a nurse. Writing medically accurate fiction is what my blog deals with for both contemporary and historical writers.

    I love this post so much. It shows how important the facts are and unless you’ve done solid research on the facts of the novel… don’t give an author grief about it.

  8. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    It seems when the ‘Offended’ decide to spend an inordinate amount of time being offended they studiously neglect researching what they’ve decided to be offended about. You’ve explained the point in clear detail, Tess. Want to bet whether it makes any difference to them. 🙂

  9. bensmini
    bensmini says:

    I have no problem with the Holmes/Nightengale situation, certainly the dates solve that question. My gripe is that you killed off “Norris Marshall”. That decision caused me grief and depressed me for several days. I just finished “ICE COLD” and am disappointed to be left wondering about the future of Maura and Daniel, is it over or not? I know as an author you have your own agenda and I unfortunately like novels to end up with happy endings. Thanks for another “good read”.

  10. Dustin
    Dustin says:

    Loved reading more about The Bone Garden – this is my favorite of your stand-alone novels and is second in overall favorites only to The Keepsake which I think was published the next year. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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