I Attribute My Success to This:—I Never Gave or Took an Excuse

Florence Nightingale? Apocryphal?

nightingale09Dear Quote Investigator: Florence Nightingale was one of the great humanitarians of the nineteenth century. She was the founder of modern nursing, and her work as an educator, administrator, and activist saved many lives. Her calls for urgent action often elicited excuses, but she continued to move forward. She reportedly said the following:

I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse.

Nightingale died in 1910, and I have only been able to find citations in the 2000s. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1913 a two-volume biography by Sir Edward Cook titled “The Life of Florence Nightingale” was released. A very close match to the quotation appeared within a letter that was reprinted in the book. The word “any” was originally “an”. The 1861 missive was sent from Nightingale to Miss H. Bonham Carter. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI: 1

I have had a larger responsibility of human lives than ever man or woman had before. And I attribute my success to this:—I never gave or took an excuse. Yes, I do see the difference now between me and other men. When a disaster happens, I act and they make excuses.

Further below are additional selected citations in chronological order.



In 1914 a laudatory review of the book was published in “The Eton College Chronicle” in England. Nightingale’s words were reprinted, and the book was recommended to fellow Etonians: 2

Listen to her sternness. “I never gave or took an excuse” (boys and tutors note).

Sir John McNeill knew what he was saying when he wrote to her “To you more than to any other man or woman alive will henceforth be due the welfare and efficiency of the British Army.”

In 1933 a collection of sketches of important historical figures was published under the title “Portraits and Personalities” by Gamaliel Bradford. The chapter on the famous nurse included the statement: 3

And perhaps the key to all Miss Nightingale’s achievement is to be found in her own significant words: “I attribute my success to this: — I never gave or took an excuse.”

By 2002 the quotation had evolved slightly, and the word “an” was replaced by “any” in a self-published book called “Tangles of Truth”: 4

“I attribute my success to this—I never gave or took any excuse”
—Florence Nightingale

In 2011 a columnist in the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” employed the version with “any”: 5

Florence Nightingale once said, “I attribute my success to this—I never gave or took any excuse.”

In 2014 the expression with “any” appeared as the solution of a puzzle in the syndicated feature “Cryptoquote”: 6

Monday’s Cryptoquote: I ATTRIBUTE MY SUCCESS TO THIS: I NEVER GAVE OR TOOK ANY EXCUSE.
— FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE

In conclusion, Florence Nightingale should be credited with the instance of the quotation in the 1913 biography. The biographer was probably able to directly access the 1861 letter. The altered quotation with the word “any” was inaccurate.

Image Notes: Cropped image from a colored lithograph based on the artwork of Henrietta Rae depicting Florence Nightingale with her lamp at a patient’s bedside; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to the anonymous student whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1913, The Life of Florence Nightingale by Sir Edward Cook (Edward Tyas Cook), Volume 1 of 2, Letter from Florence Nightingale to Miss H. Bonham Carter, Date: 1861, Quote Page 506, Macmillan and Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  2. 1914 February 12, The Eton College Chronicle, The Life of Florence Nightingale, Start Page 509, Quote Page 510, Conducted by Present Etonians, Eton: Spottiswoode & Company, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  3. 1933, Portraits and Personalities by Gamaliel Bradford, Edited by Mabel A. Bessey, Chapter: Florence Nightingale, Start Page 116, Quote Page 132, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  4. 2002, Tangles of Truth by Derek Hart, Epigraph of Chapter 21, Unnumbered Page, Writers Club Press: An Imprint of iUniverse, Inc., Lincoln, Nebraska. (Google Books Preview)
  5. 2011 February 20, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Arbitration is one awful aggravation by Brian O’Neill, Quote Page A2, Column 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 2014 September 9, The Palm Beach Post, Cryptoquote, Quote Page D6, Column 4, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Newspapers_com)