Florence Nightingale

Nightingale's Cats

"The Nightingale Felines" Joy Shiller
"Mr Bismark and Big Pussie: the Special Friends of Florence Nightingale" Mark Bostridge

The Nightingale Felines

By Joy Shiller RN, BSN, MS, CAPA

A small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick or long chronic cases, especially. -- Florence Nightingale, 1859 1

The mention of Florence Nightingale’s name sparks two thoughts in our minds. She is credited as being the founder of modern nursing and is known for her efforts during the Crimean War. However, her other roles and accomplishments are just as astonishing. In addition to being a nurse, Miss Nightingale was an author, an educator, an inventor, a researcher, a statistician, and a philanthropist. In the post-war period, she worked diligently to reform conditions in India, in the London workhouses, and for the British military. She was recognized as an international authority on hospital planning and served as a consultant during the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and for multiple British military campaigns. She was an inspiration to Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton, for the Geneva Convention, and for the Red Cross. Numerous honors were bestowed upon her by the royalty of several countries. Interestingly, one of the least known facets about Miss Nightingale’s life is that she was a devout cat lover.

Miss Nightingale was raised on a large English countryside estate by an extraordinarily wealthy family. Throughout her childhood, she was surrounded by the presence of animals, including ponies, dogs, cats and birds. According to her mother, she “always had a passion for almost any kind of creature.” 2 Her first documented attempt at nursing was treating the injured paw of a sheepdog named Cap when she was a child. Over the years, cats became her favorite companions. 3 In fact, they were her chief joy. 4 She probably owned 60 felines during her lifetime. Her favorite was a large Persian named Mr. Bismarck, “the most sensitively affectionate of cats, very gentle. ….who never makes a mistake.” 5

The Crimean War

Miss Nightingale’s preference for cats first surfaced during the Crimean War. Throughout the 21 months she was in the war zone, she worked among squalor and disease to improve the horrendous conditions of the British military. However, the circumstances for the nurses were just as appalling. One of the worst situations concerned the ubiquitous presence of rats. The following is an excerpt from a letter Miss Nightingale wrote to her sister Parthe in 1856 describing an experience while caring for one of her nurses, a Catholic nun, suffering from Crimean Fever:

Would you not like to see me hunting rats like a terrier dog? Me! Scene in Crimean hut…Sick nun, perfectly deaf, me the only occupant of the hut except the rat sitting on rafter over sick nun’s head and rats scrambling about. Enter me with a lantern in one hand and a broomstick in the other……Broomstick descends…enemy dead…slain cast out of hut but not buried. 6
One day, an exhausted nurse sat down on her bed only to realize she had squashed a whole nest of baby rats. 7 Needless to say, when a soldier presented the nurses with a small yellow cat to help control these rodents, they were delighted. 8 A little cat was among the “spoils of war” Miss Nightingale sent back to England. 9 Unfortunately, the kitten died before the ship reached its destination. 10

The Post Crimean Years

When Miss Nightingale returned home from the Crimean War her health was shattered. For the next 52 years she was an invalid and seldom left her living quarters. At the time, her physical symptoms were thought to be the residual of Crimean fever. Actually, she probably had contracted chronic brucellosis from drinking infected milk. 11 Despite her infirmities, the post-war years were the most productive and prolific of Miss Nightingale’s life. She not only authored books, but wrote countless papers and pamphlets. Her sitting room at the Burlington Hotel, where she took up residence, was known as the “Little War Office.” It was during this time that her close friends, the Mohls, presented her with a family of fine Persian cats. These purebreds, with their elegant long hair, were highly sought after. 12 Some of them were yellow and stripped, “almost like tigers and very wild.” 13 It was not uncommon for six of these stripped yellow cats at a time to wander about her room at will. She worked with a cat “tied in a knot around her neck.” 14 Others knocked over her vases of flowers and navigated around piles of Blue Books, architectural drawings of hospital plans, and her Indian reports. 15 Her cats tended to upset her ink and made “unseemly blurs” on her papers. These “blurs” were actually imprints of their paws which are still visible today on many of her letters and drafts. 16

When she was not working she played with her family of cats. She once described her efforts to teach one of her kittens to wash itself. The cat, referring to Miss Nightingale, said, “What an awkward great cat that is!” 17

Miss Nightingale carefully screened her visitors. Among her favorites were infants and small children. On one occasion she observed the interactions between a small infant visitor and her cats:

It put out its hand with a kind of gracious dignity and caressed them as if they were presenting Addresses, and they responded in a humble, grateful way, quite cowed by infant majesty. 18
Although Miss Nightingale took meticulous care of her cats, they were a constant source of worry and labor for her domestic staff. They had finicky appetites and ate specially prepared food on china plates served in her room. 19 Mr. Bismarck ate on a precise schedule, “particularly partial to a little rice pudding with his 5 o’clock tea.” 20. Their litter boxes were filled with weekly deliveries of imported sand and sod. 21 At one point, a rumor was circulated that “Miss Nightingale kept 17 cats with a nurse to attend each one and that they were periodically sent to the country for a change of air.” 22 When one of her precious cats and its kitten died following an extract of tar treatment for parasites, Miss Nightingale sent an enraged letter about the veterinarian to the authorities and vowed to save other animals from the same fate. 23, 24

Like Mr. Bismarck, she often named her cats after eminent men such as Gladstone and Disraeli, but then again, there was Muff, Tom, and Barts, the later being named for St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. 25, 26 Many of her fine Persians turned out to be mongrels. She once apologetically admitted:

I take no end of pains to marry them well. But they won’t have the husbands I choose, while they take up with low Toms…Not only have my Pupie’s kits no long feathery tails but they have no long feathery ears – but ears like cropped bull dogs & tails like rats. 27
When her cats had kittens, she gave them away to carefully chosen homes. 28 At times, Miss Nightingale could be extremely difficult, stubborn, and demanding, but when it came to her special felines, she revealed a unique and sensitive part of her personality. The following is a partial transcript from a letter concerning the potential adoption of Mr. White, a very special angora tomcat. It conveys the scrupulous care she provided to her cats as well as her loving, protective nature:
Dear Mrs. Frost.

1. Mr. White has never made dirt in his life: but has been brought up to go to a pan, with sand in it. You must have patience with him, please till he has been taught to go out-of-doors for his wants.

2. He has always been shut up at night: (in a large pantry :) to prevent his being lost. And I believe he ought to always be shut up at night: for this reason…For fear he should run away & try to get back to me.

3. He has always been used to having his meals by himself like a gentleman on a plate put upon a ‘tablecloth’ (an old newspaper) spread on the floor.

He is not greedy: has never stolen anything: & never drags his bones off his newspaper. But I am sorry to say he always lived well: he has bones, & milk, in the morning: after 7 o’clock dinner he has any remains of fish not fish bones or chicken – or game bones: which he eats like a gentleman off a plate in my room, as I have described: & never asks for more – than a little broken meat & milk, when he is shut up at night & a large jar of fresh water (which he can’t upset) always on the floor for him.

4. He is the most affectionate and intelligent cat I have ever had…& when his own little sister cat died, he refused food and almost broke his heart. He washes and dresses two little kits we have here (of his) himself. I never saw a Tom-cat do that before…He is now 10 months old.

I have written a long letter about him: but in short I recommend him to your kind care: & am,

Yours Faithfully,

Florence Nightingale 29

Miss Nightingale’s cats were sometimes stolen and also tended to get lost. 30 She once stated: “I have had quite too much of policemen, and printing handbills, and offering rewards and paying them for lost or stolen tomcats in London.” 31 One day, Miss Nightingale was on a train returning from a visit to her sister with Quiz, one of her Persian kittens. It jumped from her basket out of the window onto the track and fled out of sight. Being the celebrity she was, Miss Nightingale summoned all the stationmasters in England to her assistance. One of them was sent back along the track to search for the cat. She was found the next morning at a parcels office and returned to Miss Nightingale. Although injured by a leap from the train, Quiz was still alive and “beginning to kick and sing.” 32

A significant amount of information concerning Miss Nightingale’s relationship with her cats is through correspondence with her parents. Many of the letters between her and her father discuss the “riddling antics of kittens.” 33 In a letter to her mother, she wrote:

Poor Mrs. Herbert told me that her chief comfort was a little Chinese dog…which used to come and kiss her eyelids and lick tears from her cheeks. I remember thinking this childish. But now I don’t. My cat does just the same to me. Dumb beasts observe you so much more than talking beings; and know so much better, what you are thinking of…. 34
According to Miss Nightingale, “cats possess more sympathy and feeling than human beings.” 35 She once equated her philosophical thinking to the behavior of a kitten:
I learn a lesson of life from a little kitten of mine, one of two. The old cat comes in and says, very cross, “I didn’t ask you in here, I like to have my Missus to myself!” And then he runs at them. The bigger and handsomer kitten runs away, but the littler one stands her ground, and when the old enemy comes near enough kisses his nose, and makes peace. That is the lesson of life, to kiss one’s enemy’s nose, always standing one’s ground. 36

35 South Street, London

Miss Nightingale moved into a small house on South Street in 1865. Bedridden for several years, she was subjected to back pain, heart problems, and depression. Injections of opium, dangerously overused in Victorian times, relieved her pain. 37 For the last two decades of her life she never left her second story bedroom which overlooked the luxuriant Dorchester flower gardens. It was only her cats and watching the birds that brought her any degree of tranquility. She was sleepless, lonely, and had resigned herself to the fact that ideal companionship and sympathy were never to be hers. 38 She ate alone and slept alone except for the cats which would lie on her pillow. 39, 40 During her most difficult and saddest times she found solace and comfort in them. When one of her cousins died, she wrote to Mrs. Mohl about her favorite cat: “He seemed to know something was wrong the day Hilary died and sat with his arms around my neck.” 41

Florence Nightingale died in her bedroom on South Street on August 13, 1910 at the age of 90. By the time of her death she was blind and senile. However, it should not be surprising that she had previously made special provisions within her will for the continued care of the felines to whom she was so devoted. 42

The Nightingale collection of writings is one of the largest in the British Library. There are also considerable holdings in private and public collections which exist all over the world. 43 Among these writings are the distinctive letters and drafts which are stamped with the tiny paw prints of the Nightingale felines. These particular pages are a visual representation of a little known aspect of the private life of one of the most extraordinary and accomplished women in Victorian history.


1. Nightingle, Florence, Notes on Nursing, What It IS and What It Is Not, Harrison & Sons” London, 1859, pg. 58.
2. E-mail Communication, Florence Nightingale Museum, April 2, 2007.
3. E-mail Communication, Florence Nightingale Museum, April 2, 2007.
4. Gill, G. The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Nightingale. Random House: New York, 2005, pg. 449.
5. Bostridge, M, Cultural Capital: Mr. Bismarck and Big Pussie: The Special Friends of Miss Nightingale, The Independent (UK), Sunday, June 15, 2003 pgs1&2
6. Goldie, S.M., Letters From the Crimea, 1854-1856, Mandolin: Manchester, U.K., 1997, pg.260.
7. Gill, G. pg 412
8. Gill, G. pg 412.
9. Gill, G., pg 413.
10. Vicinus, M. & Nergaard, B., Ever Yours, Florence Nightingale, Selected Letters. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.1990, pg 157
11. Gill, G. pg 428
12. Gill, G., pg. 449
13. Cook, Sir E., The Life of Florence Nightingale, Two Volumes in One, Macmillan Co: New York, 1942, pg.499.
14. Woodham-Smith, C., Florence Nightingale 1820-1910, Atheneum: New York, 1986, pg 285.
15. Boyd, N. Three Victorian Women Who Changed Their World, Oxford University Press: New York, 1982, pg.18.
16. Woodham-Smith, C, pg. 285
17. Woodham-Smith, C., pg 285.
18. Boyd, N. Pg. 18.
19. Gill, G. pg.449.
20. Bostridge, M, pg 2.
21. Gill, G. pg.449
22. Bostridge, M., pg. 2
23. Gill, G.. pg. 449
24. Bostridge, M. pg 2
25. Gill, G., pg. 449.
26. Cook, Sir. E., pg 499
27. Vicinus, M & Nergaard, B. pg 360
28. Wallin, P. The Comfort of Cats, Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York, 2003, pg. 34
29. Vicinus, M & Nergaard, B., pg 360.
30. Gill, G., pg 449
31. Bostridge, M. pg 2
32. Bostridge, M. pgs 1&2
33. Cook, Sir E., pg 499
34. Vicinus, M & Nergaard, B, pg.238.
35. Bostridge, M., pg 1
36. Huxley, E. Florence Nightingale. G Putman’s Sons: New York, 1975 pg. 243
37. Gorrell, G. Heart and Soul, The Story of Florence Nightingale, Tundra Books: Ontario Canada 2000, pg 12238.
38. Woodham-Smith, C., pg 285
39. Wallin, P. pg.34
40. Gill, G., pg 449.
41. Huxley, E. pg 210
42. Wallin, P pg 41
43. Gill, G. pg 433

Special thanks to Joe McDonald for all his assistance

Originally published in the Bulletin of the American Association for the History of Nursing, Inc.

Mr Bismark and Big Pussie: the Special Friends of Florence Nightingale

By Mark Bostridge, from the Independent (UK)

Cats, according to Florence Nightingale, possess much more sympathy and feeling than human beings. This was a conclusion she reached during her long periods of illness in the decades following the Crimean War. Confined indoors, working on manifold schemes for public health reform and often seeing no more than one person a day for fear of strain or excitement, Nightingale looked upon her cats as providing important solace and companionship. A story did the rounds in the 1870s that she kept 17 cats, with a nurse to attend to each, and that the cats were periodically sent to the country for a change of air. Except for the bit about the nurses, this isn't so far from the truth.

Writing a biography of Florence Nightingale - something I've been doing for longer than I care to remember - I've come to view her feline friends as engaging minor characters in the story. There's Mr Bismark [sic], a large white, "the most sensitively affectionate of cats, very gentle and really a lady", who moved in with Nightingale at her house in South Street, Mayfair, in 1867. A little earlier, Tom and Topsy had taken up residence on Nightingale's bed, "greatly to the horror of big Pussie, who does nothing but snarl at them". Through the years, cats come and go: Tib, a large Persian called Gladstone, Mrs Tit, and poor old Mr Muff who ended up being shot by a gamekeeper while taking the country air at the Nightingale family home near Romsey. Cats figure largely in Nightingale's correspondence and inky pawmarks sometimes leave their trail across her notepaper.

Recently, I was working in an archive in New York, one of the 150 associated with Nightingale across the world, which I hadn't already consulted. I was feeling pretty disgruntled having just attended a conference in Baltimore at which yet another speculative diagnosis of Nightingale's illness had been paraded and sensationalised in a kind of elaborate parlour game. The key note speaker, an expert on lactation and postpartum depression, had, surprise, surprise, decided that Nightingale had suffered the form of depression known as bipolar; in fact, depression was just part of the chronic brucellosis that Nightingale picked up in the Crimea, probably as a result of a bacterial infection transmitted through drinking goat's milk, but let's not get into that.

I was therefore in just the mood to be cheered by the little catty tale with a happy ending that emerged from the manuscripts I was working on. In the autumn of 1885 Nightingale, accompanied by Quiz, her Persian kitten, was returning by train to London from a visit to her sister Lady Verney at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire. At Watford, Quiz suddenly jumped from her basket out of the window, on to the track and scampered out of sight.

"I summoned all the stationmasters in England to my assistance", Nightingale recalled later, with a typical dramatic flourish. "He of Watford" was sent back along to the line to find Quiz, and telegraphed later that evening: "Cat found not hurt; will send it to your address 7:25 hence tonight." But "the poor little cat did not come", wrote Nightingale, requesting the assistance of the Euston Station Inspector, "and I have heard nothing of it, either last night or this morning."

Next morning, however, there was good news. Quiz had been at the Euston parcels office overnight. Injured by her leap from the train, she "could hardly move or speak". But she was alive "and begins to kick and sing".

Temporarily losing a roaming cat was nothing new: "...I have had quite too much of policemen, and printing handbills, and offering rewards and paying them, for lost or stolen tomcats in London." In 1869, for instance, Tib strayed into the house of Nightingale's next-door neighbour, Lord Lucan, ignominious leader of Charge of the Light Brigade fame, from where he was hastily retrieved. Joseph and Pickle, two other toms who went missing, were not so fortunate, and were never found.

The ignorance of a vet was responsible for the deaths of two other Nightingale cats, a mother and her kitten. Much to Nightingale's distress, a patent treatment intended to destroy parasites turned out to be an extract of tar, resulting in a cruel death for both pets. Nightingale vowed to save future animals from veterinary surgeons.

Mr Bismark was especially prized for being a "very clean cat" who "never makes a mistake". He was rewarded with a precise regime to serve his needs. A newspaper was spread like a tablecloth on the floor for his meals, "which he eats like a gentleman out of a plate", and he was particularly partial to a little rice pudding with his five o'clock tea. In keeping with Nightingale's general philosophy of hygiene, she had little patience with messy cats, like Fluffy and Jubilee at Claydon, and instructed the housekeeper there that "If cats cannot be taught to be clean, they must be destroyed."

Florence Nightingale mated her cats carefully and sent their litters to specially selected homes. But over this aspect of cat-life she could exercise only limited control. "My present Pussie has been married twice and no signs of little cats", she lamented in 1862. Even worse was a "mesalliance". Repeatedly she chose husbands of high extraction as mates, only to find that her cats preferred to take up with low toms from the local mews.

Copyright 2003 Independent Newspapers UK Limited

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