Performer uses musical influence to raise awareness about war issues, nursing and Florence Nightingale
Country Joe McDonald, famous for singing with Country Joe and the Fish at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, feels called by fate to make sure everyone knows the facts behind Florence Nightingale.
In an Oakland, Calif., bookstore one day in 1981, a singer/songwriter with no previous interest in nursing bought a plain, blue volume about Florence Nightingale.
Country Joe McDonald, famous for singing with Country Joe and the Fish at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, didn’t much like reading. But he read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Florence Nightingale cover to cover. Five times.
“I’m a musician. I don’t know anything about nursing and health care and I’m not a historian, but … [Nightingale] did so much in her life, I had to wonder how and why. I looked at it from a hobbyist’s, or musician’s, point of view.”
Just as Nightingale (1820-1910) felt called by God to become a nurse, McDonald feels called by fate to make sure everyone knows the facts about her. Nightingale predicted in 1890 that people would remember her name.
“Thomas Edison recorded her voice in a cylinder recording [available at ww.bl.uk/collections/sound-archive/history.html]. She said, ‘When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice saves … the great work of my life,’ and that’s what’s happened, actually,” McDonald said. “Everyone knows her name, or that she was ‘the lady with the lamp,’ but almost no one really knows what she did. I’m trying to get the word out.”
Meanwhile, he’s filled the upstairs hallway bookshelves and drawers of his home with book after book about Nightingale. Inside clear pockets, McDonald files his personal photographs of her home in England and the hospitals in Turkey near Constantinople, where she nursed soldiers between 1854 and 1856. In his 10-year-old son’s room nearby, he keeps two shelves of Florence Nightingale and other nursing dolls.
The “nonscholar” recently made another trip to Nightingale’s childhood home in July, armed with a video camera to investigate some hunches he has about her exposure to lead. Her family owned a lead smelter near Derbyshire, England, he said. Some of her symptoms, such as weak ankles and wrists, he said, indicate that she suffered from lead poisoning.
McDonald also has been reading original correspondence, such as letters Nightingale wrote to a Catholic nun. A historian friend, Anne Summers, who wrote the out-of-print book Angels and Citizens: British Women as Military Nurses 1854-1914, showed him shelves of Nightingale correspondence in July at the British Library, London.
After reading Smith’s book, McDonald married a lay midwife, Kathy, who’s now a labor and delivery nurse at Summit Medical Center in Oakland. His brother became a nurse practitioner at Kaiser years before that. McDonald devotes time to his Web site, www.countryjoe.com, and to the part of it he set up in homage to Nightingale. Two of his children, Ryan, 10, and Emily, 13, do not yet share his interest in Nightingale.
His fascination with Nightingale and nursing stems from seemingly unrelated interests and events, but all are somehow tied to an interest in the psychological effects of war.
McDonald enlisted in the Navy in 1959 after attending high school in El Monte, Calif. Except for watching U-2 spy planes take off during his two-year stint handling flight operations for an air base in Japan, McDonald didn’t see much action. After Japan, he worked and went to college in the Los Angeles area, where he became involved with the civil rights movement and nonviolent causes.
In 1965, after McDonald saw Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform, he dropped out of college for financial reasons and moved to the San Francisco Bay area with the intention of living in the city and becoming a folk singer with the beatniks. But San Francisco’s size and density “freaked him out,” he said. He fell in love with Berkeley instead, where he made friends who shared his labor and anti-war sentiments. He still lives there.
An anti-war magazine, Rag Baby, that he started shortly after the move to Berkeley, morphed into the making of a record when he found other band members. Country Joe and the Fish first performed in 1965.
“The nursing songs came much later,” McDonald said. “I had no interest in or knowledge about nursing, but I had been in the military. My mother was Jewish, so I was well aware of the Holocaust, and of our potential to be a victim. I wrote these anti-war songs, but [at the time] I wasn’t even conscious of women in the military. It was denial. So when I wrote my Vietnam songs, there was no mention of women.”
Meanwhile, Country Joe and the Fish sang about saving the whales and the seals, and the dangers of nuclear energy.
After Saigon fell in 1975, McDonald received more calls from veterans asking him to write songs about postwar issues.
“I began to revisit my own military experience, and realized I had excluded women [in my advocacy work and songs]. I felt guilty. It really politically bothered me. I told Lynda Van Devanter [author of Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam] I’d write a song about a Vietnam War nurse. I knew absolutely nothing about nurses or women’s participation in Vietnam, so I did what most people would do. I looked in an encyclopedia. The first name that popped into my head was Florence Nightingale. There were five or six paragraphs about her.”
He had just been to a conference about post-traumatic stress disorder, and thought, “Here was this upper-class British woman who went off to the Crimean War, and who brought women to war in the English-speaking world, and the encyclopedia said she suffered from a ‘nervous disorder’ after the war. That piqued my interest a lot.”
Nightingale lived to be 90, so McDonald figured that if she had been in her 30s during the Crimean War, she must have lived a long time with that so-called “nervous disorder.”
At Holmes Books in Oakland, which is no longer in business, he found Sir Edward Cook’s two-volume set, The Life of Florence Nightingale, autographed by the author, for $6. Next to it, he found Smith’s Florence Nightingale. Those two books, he said, were considered the definitive biographies of Nightingale until Barbara Montgomery Dossey’s Florence Nightingale: Mystic, Visionary, Healer was published last year by Springhouse Corp.
Because he had no knowledge of British history, reading the books was slow-going. But he felt empathetic toward Nightingale, whose family at first didn’t understand her calling to be a nurse. “She came from an enmeshed, dysfunctional family. I identified strongly with her. She said she got a call from God to be a nurse. This was intriguing to me, as an atheist.”
The Crimean War was similar to the one in Vietnam, McDonald said. In both, he said, no one understood the reasons for fighting. There were huge scandals and many deaths.
“I’m a slow reader; I didn’t finish at the university. But I became fascinated with Florence. I went to used bookstores for more books about her.”
Meanwhile, McDonald performed at fund-raisers and raised awareness about Vietnam veterans’ issues at VA and American Legion events, outreach centers and discussion groups. He became more aware of the “huge laundry list” of problems plaguing the veterans. Then he discovered a small but important group of war nurses.
He departed from Nightingale a bit when he read about Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, and wrote a song about her.
“Then I finally wrote a Florence Nightingale song, ‘Lady with the Lamp.’ It’s a good song about bonding between a nurse and a patient.”
He noticed a similarity between Vietnam War nurses and Nightingale. “She managed to become an expert on hospitals in her mid-30s, at the time of the Crimean War,” he said. Before Nightingale, there were sisterhoods of nurses and deaconesses, which fell under the auspices of the church, which McDonald said was patriarchal. They received no salary-their work was to serve God.
After the Crimean War, Nightingale became as popular with the British public as Princess Diana or Madonna, even though she was mostly a recluse, McDonald said. Articles in the Times, a major British newspaper, brought her work to light.
During the Crimean War, she cared for dying soldiers in squalid conditions, he said, even though she came from one of the most important families in Britain. She didn’t have to work at all, McDonald said. She was a wealthy man’s daughter. She could have married into a respectable family and become the mistress of a large estate, but that was not her calling, he said. Nightingale spoke five languages and excelled at math, science and history. It was unusual at the time for a woman to have a university education.
Two things came out of her work: newfound respect for soldiers and newfound respect for nurses. Before that, nurses, if they weren’t nuns, were considered “menial harlots,” McDonald said. It was considered unladylike for women to go into a hospital during a war.
When Nightingale arrived at the hospital in Scutari, Turkey, in November 1854, it was filthy, with lice everywhere and lavatories overflowing. She bought cleaning supplies with her own money (and was later reimbursed). There were no clean clothes for the soldiers to change into, so she fashioned a laundry out of two boilers and helped to improve the food.
When the war ended, she spoke to Queen Victoria and prominent politicians about how to improve the Army and nursing, although she suffered from the lingering effects of a severe case of Crimean fever. She declined invitations to attend parties in her honor, which perplexed her family and friends.
McDonald heard from Vietnam War nurses who came home and refused to attend parties their families wanted to throw for them. The similar patterns fascinated him. He accumulated more books about the Crimean War and Nightingale, and traveled to her birthplace, summer home and the sites in Turkey where she nursed the soldiers.
These connections, and his belief that Nightingale had post-traumatic stress disorder, reinforced his resolve to write a song about nursing. He pondered the patriarchal and matriarchal levels within it.
His wife, Kathy, told him physicians sometimes boss nurses around, and sometimes patients are violent. Appreciation was in short supply. His song, “Thank the Nurse,” came next.
In England this summer, McDonald watched the BBC2 television offering about Nightingale in its “Reputations” series, which aired a less-than-glowing portrait of the nurse. It was scarcely worth commenting on, he said. “It was really remarkable in its lack of depth and intelligence. People complained that the BBC had put out this trashy, cheap entertainment, when the BBC is supposed to be high-class.”
No matter what attacks anyone launches against Nightingale, McDonald will defend her using the facts in his ever-expanding personal library. He is scheduled to perform his two songs in praise of nurses, “Thank the Nurse” and “Lady with the Lamp,” at the National Student Nurses’ Association’s 50th convention April 2-6 in Philadelphia.