The Life and Death of Athena the Owl!

Nurse Florence Nightingale was asked to help during the Crimean War (1854-1856) in which she organised care for wounded British soldiers at a hospital in Scutari (modern-day Üsküdar in Istanbul).  She arrived in November 1854 with 38 volunteer nurses, but the conditions were terrible.  Wounded soldiers were sleeping in overcrowded, dirty rooms without any blankets. Soldiers often arrived at the hospital with diseases like typhus, cholera and dysentery and the makeshift hospital was on top of a blocked sewer with rats running everywhere.

During the Crimean War, 90% of British soldiers who died, died from diseases, not from war injuries.  When she arrived at the hospital, the army doctors who worked there did not want the nurses helping.  Florence realised that if the doctors were going to allow her nurses to work then they had to do a very good job.  During the war, Florence reduced the death rate in the hospital from 42% to 2% by making improvements in hygiene herself, or by calling for the Sanitary Commission.

The story by her sister Parthenope with a drawing of Florence and the owl.

By 1855, whilst at the hospital, Florence fell ill herself.  To cheer her up, her sister; Parthenope who was back in Britain, sent her a book she wrote and illustrated herself called ‘Life and Death of Athena, an Owlet from the Parthenon’. The book tells the story of how Florence found and adopted a small owl she found in Athens in June 1850 and how it became her beloved pet.  Florence called the owl Athena, after the Greek goddess of wisdom and from 1850-1855 was with her always, either on her shoulder or asleep in her pocket.

Athena the owl in the museum.

When Athena the owl died in 1855, it was embalmed and is now on display in the Florence Nightingale Museum.  Upon the death, Florence wrote “Poor little beastie, it was odd how much I loved you”.

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