'A mystery to the medical world': Florence Nightingale, Rosendo Salvado and the risk of civilisation

Tiffany Shellam


In 1860 Florence Nightingale conducted a study on the mortality rates of indigenous children attending native colonial schools across the British Empire. Her study was driven by the question: ‘Can we civilise the natives without killing them?’ One colonial school that participated in the survey was New Norcia Benedictine mission in Western Australia. When Rosendo Salvado, the mission’s superintendent, responded, he drew on his daily encounters with the Yuat people, his statistics on the mission residents and his Benedictine philosophy of civilisation and conversion of colonised peoples. The correspondence between Salvado and Nightingale took place in the climate of intense debates about Aboriginal health, colonisation and extinction in Britain and the colonies. While many settlers and colonial observers understood Aboriginal depopulation to be the result of either the vices and diseases of unprincipled Europeans or an unstoppable destiny, whether Divine Providence or natural selection, Nightingale and Salvado shared a belief in practical solutions to what they understood to be a practical problem. Their collaboration is an example of the humanitarian opposition to the racial pessimism of Social Darwinism. They both sought to use the recently influential intellectual discipline of social statistics to support their conviction that Aborigines, if patiently and carefully handled, would survive the admittedly risky process of civilisation.


Aboriginal History; missionaries, nostalgia; social statistics - history; colonialism

Full Text:



  • There are currently no refbacks.

This site is hosted by Monash University Publishing. ABN 12 377 614 012. Terms and conditions. Copyright. Caution. Privacy. Accessibility information. CRICOS Provider Number: 00008C. Maintained by publishing@monash.edu.