The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of

Miss Florence Nightingale

By Gillian Gill. Ballantine. 535 pp. $27.95

Wars, especially unpopular ones, need heroes -- even heroines. Often they prove to be the wrong sort. No matter: Medals and promotions and peerages paper over incompetence, ineffectuality and worse. In the Crimean War (1854-56), in which Britain and France propped up decaying Turkey to forestall Russian aggrandizement, the only authentic hero proved to be a control freak who was unsoldierly and unmanageable -- and, worst of all, female. Resisting reforms in medical care, the military bureaucracy attempted to deter and discredit her, rewarding the mediocrities whose most strenuous fighting served the status quo. Only two things are now remembered about that war. The "Charge of the Light Brigade" was a disaster disguised as iconic courage, and the casualties were nursed by Florence Nightingale.

How the formidable and religiously driven Nightingale got there, how her early Victorian, upper-middle-class social network contributed (often reluctantly) to her campaigns to reform public health, and what became of her afterward are what Nightingales is all about. But it is slow to start, and Florence Nightingale's privileged childhood -- she was born in 1820, the year after Victoria -- begins 98 pages into the book. Although that background, expansively described, is itself a good read, the very first page may induce unprepared readers to put the book down. We find in that melodramatic preview that, in reaction to Florence's refusal to marry a suitor, her mother "screamed like a cockney fishwife" and her sister, Parthenope, "spent half the day ranting hysterically and the other half lying prostrate on the red silk damask sofa," while Florence herself "paced silently about the house, white and abstracted, for all the world like a Christian facing the lions." But after that unpromising beginning, the soap-opera stuff drops away, and the biography becomes compelling indeed.

Perhaps to be chatty and intimate, Gillian Gill, who has also written lives of Agatha Christie and Mary Baker Eddy, resorts to such mannerisms as "If I had to guess, I would say that . . . , " "I have the impression . . . ," and "I, for one, am dying to know. . . ." That the book survives such ladies-over-for-morning-coffee affectations and references to "Flo" suggests its storytelling flair. Florence Nightingale and her extended family are evoked so vividly that we are drawn into the colorful, cultivated, class-ridden world in which they were thwarted, and thrived.

Foreshadowing her curiously guilt-ridden later years, when Nightingale was all of 21 she wrote that "the happiest time of my life was during a year's illness which I had when I was six years old." According to popular myth, she took to her bed after Crimea and remained there while running other people's lives and exploiting them to promote public health improvements. Despite the story told in Lytton Strachey's bitchy Eminent Victorians (1918), Nightingale, while becoming increasingly reclusive, took to her Mayfair bedroom for good only when she was 74 and her disciples of both sexes were estranged or dead.

The remarkable experience that made her the most celebrated woman of the age -- along with the queen, one of her admirers -- was her officially sanctioned intrusion in, and reform of, military medicine when she was in her middle thirties. Brazenly, she took over and restructured the wretched "four miles" of hospital beds near the Bosporus and Constantinople that housed the British sick and wounded from across the Black Sea at besieged Sevastopol. Under utterly miserable conditions, her two hospitals crowded in about 2,500 unlucky men. Gill's graphic account of Nightingale's ordeals there should not be read before dinner.

Nearly a century later, during the Korean War, I was the admissions officer of the sprawling U.N. Prisoner of War Hospital. Ten thousand enemy sick and wounded in tents and huts occupied miles of cots. Probably then the largest military hospital in the world, it often seethed with mutiny. Nightingale, the saintly "Lady with the Lamp," could check her sick and dying patients by night. It was unsafe for us to enter after dark. Even so, her situation was far more desperate. Until she came to the hospitals at Scutari, sanitation was nonexistent, and few medications worked. We had early antibiotics; she had to scrounge for bandages. Until she took charge, amputations were done without anesthesia and unscreened from horrified patients nearby. We had first-class physicians and equipment, and surgery was performed in private. At Scutari, surgeons (to give them benefit of the doubt) sawed up not only soldiers but -- for firewood -- newly delivered operating tables. They resented a bossy lady's interference, and that of her female nurses, who actually provided patient care.

In her post-Crimea years, while recovering from a long wartime illness, the unmarrying Nightingale, now beyond rejecting marriage proposals, organized public health reforms even from her bed and penned thousands of pages on professionalizing nursing. She saw all hospitals pragmatically as part of the "machinery of overpopulated civilization" that had to work efficiently for society to flourish. For her that meant minute attention to architecture and to sanitation, and it meant women as well as men providing medical care. When she faded away, blind but serene at 90, a young female doctor signed the death certificate. *

Stanley Weintraub's new book, "Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom; Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783," is forthcoming in January.

Florence Nightingale at Scutari during the Crimean War