The customised wheelchair used by Florence Nightingale in the years following her return from the Crimean War has gone on public display in the UK for the first time. It is now part of a new permanent display here at the Florence Nightingale Museum.

The early 20th century mahogany and iron chair, with red and tan floral brocade seat cover, was used by Florence Nightingale in her Mayfair home as she fought her own chronic illness. Despite the challenge of ongoing disability, Nightingale campaigned to transform healthcare and inspired generations of nurses across the world in ways that continue today.

The wheelchair has been kindly donated by The Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA. The donors jointly agreed to deaccession the Nightingale wheelchair from the cultural properties collection of the Chesney Archives in order to donate it to the Florence Nightingale Museum. Extensive and sympathetic conservation of the wheelchair was undertaken by the donors before deciding to transfer it as a gift.

The wheelchair initially came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing through a gift from Dr Howard A. Kelly who had acquired it in England. Dr Kelly, first professor of gynaecology at Johns Hopkins, was a major collector of Nightingale memorabilia. “If an intimate object can convey a lesson and transmit an inspiration, may this chair suggest the spiritual presence of your great apostle of nursing and prove a blessing to the nursing school,” Kelly wrote in a letter bestowing the gift. After The Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing closed in 1973, the newly established Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing placed the Nightingale wheelchair on display.

A condition of the gift to the Florence Nightingale Museum was that the museum would bear the costs of packing and transportation to London and so a campaign was mounted to raise the necessary funds. The generous support of The Company of Nurses Charitable Trust, as well as individuals across the world, has enabled the wheelchair to join the world’s most extensive Nightingale collection at the museum.

Brenda Griffiths, chairwoman of the board of The Company of Nurses Charitable Trust said:

“The past 50 years of Florence Nightingale’s life are often glossed over in favour of her Crimean efforts, but in this period, Nightingale went on to influence the nursing profession as we know it today, despite the challenge of ongoing disability.

“As a result, her wheelchair is a powerful emblem of her strength and physical commitment. She accomplished so much despite her limited mobility.”

“It is such a positive message for wheelchair users today.”

The wheelchair has been displayed to coincide with our British Military Nursing in Peace and War exhibition. Find out more about the exhibition here and book tickets for the museum here.

Photographs of the wheelchair

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