This week in Mash history: Florence Nightingale's receptionist stops dirty wounded soldiers from bothering her, 1854

FLORENCE Nightingale is one of the most famous figures in medical history, known by many as a pioneer of medical practice, and others as ‘her with the lamp’. 

But did you realise that a more lasting contribution to modern healthcare came not from Nightingale, but from her stony-faced administrator? Known only as Ethel, her tireless efforts in making access to medical attention an arduous ordeal has inspired millions.

Alongside Nightingale’s hard work promoting nursing as worthy of respect, Ethel invented her own role as military-grade intimidation that could strike fear into the bravest of men. Her tactics were recorded in one wounded soldier’s diary:

“I have faced unspeakable horrors on the battlefield. I have dragged myself, and my bullet-ridden men, through mud and smoke and across the Bosporus, at any moment knowing we may lose limbs or lives. Yet not one of these terrors compares to facing Ethel.

“We had barely collapsed across the boundary when we heard a sigh I mistook for thunder. Our cries for water or a simple bandage were that there were met with a hard assertion there were no more appointments that day and they don’t accept walk-ins. The cannonballs had more mercy.

“I drifted in and out of consciousness as we were told of complex riddles. Apparently there is a window of time, just before the dawn, when we must join a queue to ask if we can be seen, and even then, may be told no.

“I found one poor soul who had seen beyond the veil, meaning the curtain behind Ethel. He was told his amputation would be a ‘referral’. The term must be sinister, as it involved much sighing and slamming of parchment from an exasperated Ethel.

“In desperation, I tried to appeal to Ethel’s humanity by pleading with her to make an exception as we are suffering so immensely. Gangrene infects our feet. Our blood trickles away. One stalwart breathed his last rasp last night.

“This seems to have only enraged her. The men around me talk of the lady with the lamp, but we only know the woman with the clicky pen.”

And so with an almost inhuman steeliness, this innovator in assistance protected nurses from treating patients, and ensured nobody would ever receive free medical care without first battling through psychological warfare.

Next week: to 1968, when Neil Armstrong workshopped some one-liners on his wife to see if they were ‘inspirational or a bit wank’.

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