The Odd Tale of Nightingale Synge--pioneer Sexual Therapist
Some years ago I was doing research for my graduate thesis. I was looking through the university library card catalog for material about the Irish playwright John Millington Synge. Following the last card for "Synge, John Millington," the next card was for a manuscript. It was a biographical piece about a woman named Nightingale Synge (not related to the playwright).
I had not thought about Nightingale Synge for many years until recently I came across that note while I culled some of my old papers for discard. That was what put me in mind of her story once more and led me to write this.
Here are my notes taken from the card: "Synge, Nightingale Emma. (1865-1946). Pioneer Sexual Therapist." Carmody-Bellisario, Maxine K. Unpublished Manuscript. 1972. 378 typed double-spaced pages., Synge founded a quasi-religious group of unconventional caregivers, The Nightingale Sisterhood, self-described practitioners of "Restorative Genito-Urologic Therapy."
It piqued my curiosity so I read the manuscript. I had to read it at the library since it was not in circulation. I found it quirky but fascinating. Regrettably I did not make a copy of it. Now I could kick myself. But I've pulled together what I can recall. You'll have to forgive me for the gaps and some fragmentary bits.
She had been a professional registered nurse; her father a doctor and her mother taken by consumption when Gale was 14. An only child, she grew up quickly. She helped her father in his practice and despite her youth, she ran his household, aided by a longtime retainer; an elderly housekeeper who was completely devoted to the doctor. Dr. Synge taught Nightingale medicine and gave her clinical exposure and he helped her get a student nursing position. In two years she sat for examination and received a registered nursing credential. Old Dr. Synge wanted his daughter to be physician like himself; that at a time when few women could achieve admission to medical school. But Gale's nature led her to take up nursing.
Three traits dominated her character. In combination these compelled her to take a path that placed her in more direct and personal contact with her patients than the role of physician. First, she was very devout and religiously minded. Second, she was a deeply compassionate person. She viewed her role as a nurse not as an occupation but rather as a vocation to which the Lord had called her. At the same time, and this was her third dominant trait; Nightingale Synge was suffused with an exceptionally ardent libido.
Being of resolute mind Miss Synge was able to balance these qualities, both intellectually and emotionally. Prayer, the Bible and church with its rituals and activities gave sustenance to her faith and devotion. Patient care and attendance, aiding and comforting those broken and crippled or afflicted with disease or illness satisfied her powerful impulse to care for others.
Her religious fervor and her heartfelt compassion for others filled her cup to the brim. She never married. Ironically she had no time to devote to build an intimate relationship with another. Although she was possessed of womanly endowments that could quicken a man's desire she was neither voluptuous nor more than comely; far from stunningly attractive. The unfortunate upshot of Gale's life was that her religious convictions and her deep compassion for her patients, wrapped in a professional clinical veneer. left no place for her to commit to a significant other, man or woman. Apart from the usual adolescent mutual anatomical explorations she remained a virgin to the extent that no man (or woman) had penetrated her vagina.
She acknowledged in a frank and practical way, learned under her father's instruction, to confront her frequent need for sexual release; often acute and urgent. Old Dr. Synge never imposed himself in any taboo way upon his daughter. But the human organism was his life's work. He unabashedly and with pedantic logic instructed his daughter that sexuality is a natural, fundamental and pervasive element of the human condition. When Nightingale asked him about the feelings that arose in her young body he responded with gentle and straightforward explanation. He also made sure she knew that she could gratify herself as her needs dictated and do so in the knowledge that orgasmic pleasure is as natural as eating and breathing. There was no moral element, her father taught, but there was much misguided and ignorant reaction. Dr. Synge also taught that pleasuring oneself is a private matter and sexual activity in the presence of others not participating might cause embarrassment or misguided indignation so it should be practiced with discretion and consideration.
She gratified herself at work by a combination of discreet physical contact with both the men and women who came under her warm and tender care.
In the privacy of her bath, or alone on ward duty at night, or yet again in bed Miss Synge brought herself off with exquisite, smashing orgasms, writhing about, gasps, shudders, thrusts and jerks seized her as she came again and again; her nipples tingling from the twisting and pinching she gave them. Sweat flowed down her cleavage and made a wet sop in her armpits. She kept toweling and a rubber pad on hand to put under her bottom so that the ooze of her sex would not stain or puddle on the furniture or the bed as it leaked from the furnace of soft flesh between her thighs. She knew she was addicted to masturbation but neither could or would stop; any notion of compulsive behavior never crossed her mind.
Miss Nightingale tended her patients with tenderness but with a façade of clinical detachment and efficiency. Her ministrations were about them, not about her was a constant she reminded herself every day. She bathed them and assisted with bedpans, wiping and such; all of the many ways a caregiver has physical contact with the patient. There was always a perfunctory caress, a touch, a pat of understanding, a dalliance of fingers upon this place, a drawing of fingers across that part, a bit of touching quite incidental to laving the genitalia; keen attendance to the scrotum and penis; drawing back of foreskin to carefully clean away the deposits that might otherwise gather behind the glans and lead to inflammation. She did not discriminate for sex or age and gave the same warm care to all of her charges.
If a male patient experienced tumescence while she soaped and richly lathered his scrotum and penis and obviously took sexual pleasure from her ministrations that was natural physiology and there was nothing more to it. Similarly if a female patient welcomed the pleasurable diversion and release that matched that boiling but hidden behind Gale's devoted nurse persona then it was simply fulfillment of a patient's needs, not so different than assisting with urination or defecation. And if her warm and tender care left Miss Synge's own sex oozing coital fluids with swollen labia and distended lips; with clitoris engorged and distended, that too was natural and inevitable physiological response; that there was intense pleasure associated with it was to be viewed as a blessing rather than an impediment to virtue; simply an ancillary byproduct of intense devotion to care of afflicted bodies.
Her heart went out to every patient she tended, man or woman, of all ages and conditions. She prayed with them and she prayed earnestly for them. She often sat with one or another for a bit as duty allowed and read from the bible or some religious tract.
Ms Nightingale was just "Gale" in daily conversation, or "Nurse Gale" or "Sister" on duty and only used the unusual given name if circumstances called for it. Her mother had named her, not after the nurse of the Crimean War, but after the bird; however apt her allusive given name turned out to be considering her chosen life's work.
Time passed until Nightingale, in 1915, at the age of 50, took a position, when he practically demanded that she do so, in the practice of Dr. H. Martin Wold-Fletcher, of long professional acquaintance, and considerable reputation, who had established what was for the time a relatively new and narrowly focused specialty, limiting his practice to genito-urological medicine and surgery.
In this way she came to meet the patient who would prove pivotal in her life; the unfortunate young man whose affliction set her on the path of what she would come to understand was meant to be her true calling in life. All that had gone before was prelude. Nightingale would experience an epiphany that came to her while she comforted the afflicted young Mr. Wilson; her heart overflowing with compassion and great concern about his very personal and private dilemma. She would do more than comfort him.
Gregory Wilson was a casualty of the Great War. He was not merely a casualty but also something of a medical miracle. He had been severely wounded by an exploding shell. Somehow fate intervened so that he was not relegated to a place among those so badly wounded they were left to die untreated. More than once as he lay abed, full of stitches, drain tubing, and intravenous fluids, swathed in bandages, the pain made him wish he had been left in the "waiting to die" group.
The field surgeons and medical staff that undertook to repair him, perhaps guided by an unseen hand, performed heroically and the handsome young man recovered; although he walked with a limp, his legs no longer being of equal length.
Most regrettably Captain Wilson's wounds extended to his genitalia and shrapnel fragments had lacerated his groin. As a dreadful outcome of these wounds, at the age of 23, Gregory was left impotent but with an otherwise intact penis (only a few small scars where bits of shrapnel had been removed) and one testicle, the other buried somewhere in the soil of the Meuse Argonne in France.
The cruelty of his inability to achieve an erection was that his male parts continued to make testosterone. His remaining testicle continued to produce sperm and the remaining part of his prostate gland and other male bits continued to make the fluids that mixed to produce seminal ejaculate at orgasm. Bitterly he remained impotent but virile and desperately hopeful that somehow he might regain sufficient tumescence to plumb the depths of a hot, wet and receptive vagina.
Although he was a captain, a decorated hero, and an effective and stalwart leader of troops in the most gruesome combat, Gregory Wilson was still a virgin. His regiment had been called up when he was just a few days past his 20th birthday and before that he had been in school, then training. There had simply been no good opportunity; a circumstance not improved by the stalwart Captain's innate shyness.
Gregory first came under the care of Dr. Wold-Fletcher when the latter was a part-time adjunct staff member caring for urological patients at the War Veterans Hospital. But Gregory came from a well-to-do family and continued to consult Dr. Wold-Fletcher in his private practice.
Despite his admirable and widely acknowledged skill as a physician and surgeon the good doctor was unable to assist Gregory in regaining potency; the confounded appendage could not be aroused from its somnambulant repose. As time passed, at each visit Nightingale could see Gregory pass from anxious optimism to anger and frustration and, at his latest visit, he began to show alarming signs of sinking into despair and even despondency.
Nightingale's heart swelled with compassion for Gregory. She became worried about him and distracted in her work. An idea had begun to form in her mind; an idea that somehow she might be able to help the young man by drawing upon her many years of nursing practice and in a way that was therapeutic rather than medical, as such. It would be a way that was outside the scope of any paradigm of care and rehabilitation about which the skilled and well meaning Dr. Wold-Fletcher might conceive. She prayed for guidance and courage. If she was to help Gregory she would be taking a large step into the unknown and could very well set both of them on a path to calamity. It was a thought that gave rise to more than a little anxiety. But against her misgivings there weighed the very real possibility that she could be saving a life.
The next day at the office while others were occupied out of earshot, Nightingale rang up the Wilson residence and asked for Captain Wilson.
"Yes, this is Captain Wilson," the young man's voice was flat and without spirit.
"Captain, this is Nurse Synge calling from Dr. Wold-Fletcher's office. The doctor wishes to know if you could come by this evening at seven o'clock. He has something to discuss with you that he believes you will want to hear. I regret that I have no details and the doctor is quite caught up with patients this morning. He sends his regrets that he cannot phone you himself just now."
It was a white lie of course. But she was anxious lest he dismiss her if she told him It was she that wanted to speak with him privately.
"Well, I don't know. I mean I don't see that there's much point anymore. Nothing seems to help my condition."
"Captain Wilson, Gregory, I want, that is the Doctor is very anxious to see you. It is important for you to keep this appointment. Do say that you will won't you?"
"Seven in the evening you say? That's odd isn't it? The doctor seeing patients at that hour?"
"The doctor is staying late this evening in order to see you and not be rushed."
Nightingale actually shook a bit after she rang off. She glowed with dew of anxiety perspiration. It was not in her to be untruthful. She said a silent prayer asking forgiveness for her subterfuge.
At 7 p.m., sharp Captain Wilson arrived and Nightingale invited his to sit.
"I have a confession to make, Captain. May I call you Gregory, Captain?"
"Yes, of course, Nurse."
"Gregory, it is I who wish to speak with you. The doctor has departed for his evening rounds at the hospital. I was anxious that you would not agree to see me so I am ashamed now to say that I was untruthful. I hope you will forgive me."
"Well, this is all a bit irregular now isn't it, Nurse? What is it that you misled me to come and hear?" There was mixture of pique, curiosity with a dollop of humor in his voice.
"It's true that my action is irregular and the Doctor does not know that I'm seeing you. Whatever you may think in response to what I want to say to you please know that the Doctor is in no way a part of this. I have undertaken this quite solely on my own initiative."
"Hmm, I see. Well, I'm here so I'll hear what you have to say."
"Before I speak of substance, may I have your word that you will not reveal our discussions here this evening; that his will go no further whatever decision you make?"
"Yes, well alright. As long as you're not going to confess to some heinous crime."
"Really Gregory." She chided him with her eyes before she went on. "Dr. Wold-Fletcher is a wonderful doctor who has helped many patients. I know that he greatly regrets not being able to help you with the condition in which you now find yourself as a result of your trauma. Doctors work within the framework of medical science and their ethical standards and our culture and our society's mores. In my many years as a nurse I've come to strongly believe there is therapy untried for those who suffer from penile dysfunction; therapy that lies outside the realm of medicine as it is presently practiced in these matters. My belief is a grounded in both my nursing experience and observations, and in my woman's intuition, silly as that may sound to you. I don't know if I can help you but if you will agree I would like to try. There is a serious negative side to this and you must understand that clearly. If we cannot restore your male vigor there is the risk that you will sink into even greater despondency than I think you are presently feeling. But if I am able to help you achieve potency once more it will be a wonderful achievement for you. For my part, I shall take humbly take satisfaction in knowing that through me the Lord has restored your procreative ability.
Captain Wilson flushed. " My, my appendage does not function. It is flaccid and useless and it will not be upstanding. Yet against the best of medical science your proposal is that somehow you can reverse my predicament with your therapy. Just what is this therapy? What do you have in mind?"
"I said we could try and can't give any assurance that we will succeed. What I have in mind Captain, Gregory, is manipulation and stimulation. By manipulation I mean direct exercise of your penis, your genital organs in a variety of ways seeking to reawaken nerve tissue that may yet remain although shocked and dormant. By stimulation I mean using your senses of sight, hearing, smell and touch to bring about male ardor. My hope is that by working together, through trial and error, and very like only gradually we might over time bring you to a fulsome erection capable of penetration, orgasm and ejaculation."
Nightingale found herself perspiring as she concluded her recitation. Moreover her crotch had warmed and grown damp despite her resolve to remain clinical and detached.
"Do you propose to instruct me in these manipulations and stimulations? Would I then go off and practice these and report back to you? Or do you mean to suggest you would actually observe me and evaluate?"
"Yes to both and more," Nightingale replied. "The therapy I propose must be intense if we are to restore your manhood. I believe it will be most effective, in fact vital, that I manipulate you and that I also provide stimulation as well. Let me add that I seek nothing for myself in making this proposal, neither corporal nor pecuniary. I will be your therapist and you will be my patient. There will of necessity be intimacy but it must perforce be impersonal."
Captain Wilson looked discomfited now as he reflected on the full prospect of Nightingale's proposed Therapy. Despite her age and matronly appearance, it excited him to think of this sincere and caring woman touching his cock and maybe his remaining testicle. He could feel the heat in his cheeks and knew his face must be quite red. Were he not impotent his cock would have been hard and bulging a tent in his pants.
"I, um, this, you," he began. "Ah, damnation! I can lead men up out of trenches into the teeth of enemy mortars and machine guns but I can't talk about this without being completely embarrassed. You asked for my confidence about our conversation. Now I ask for yours. The truth is I've never been with a woman, I'm still a virgin. Oh, I've played with myself in the past and felt a bosom or two but not bare flesh."
"Gregory, I assure you I will be gentle and respect your sensibilities if we go forward. I know this is a good deal to think about, for both of us. Will you consider what I've said and give me your answer soon?" Captain Wilson agreed.
"Are you a man of prayer, Gregory?" Nightingale asked.
"I said many prayers in the trenches, Nurse."
"Then let us pray together before you leave. " She folded her hands and they bowed their heads, "Heavenly Father look down on Thy servants who come to you to ask Thy blessing upon us. Make us instruments of Thy will. If it be Thy will that I assist this brave young man to restore in him Thy gift of manly vigor; if that be Thy will then give him peace and resolve to say yes. Help us both to be chaste and undertake this not for carnal pleasure in itself but as the giving and receiving of a work of mercy; I Thy servant, Nightingale, giving comfort and restorative therapy to Gregory, also Thy servant in his affliction, in Jesus name, amen."
They parted without Gregory's commitment but he agreed to give his answer by week's end.
At home Nightingale drew a bath. She lowered herself into the pool of heat and sighed away the tension from the meeting. In the privacy of her home, in her bath, she need no longer maintain the professional demeanor and detachment of Nurse Synge. She thought of what lay ahead should Gregory agree. Thinking this way and about Gregory she found herself seeing him not as a patient but as a man and more than that, as a lover.
The heat spreading in her groin now came from within rather than only through the hot bath water. Her fingers found her vulva and set about fondling and fingering herself with increasing intensity, her legs thrown over the sides of the tub. She scooted so far down in the tub that her face was nearly submerged. An image of Gregory's flaccid member loomed in her imagination. As she stroked and fondled him, then bent, in her mind's eye, to kiss and lick his genitals she realized wonderingly that his cock was slowly coming to life and it grew erect as she watched. Oh, Gregory, look at your beautiful penis. That's so wonderful. Yes, dear, that's it. Oh, doesn't that feel so good? Oh, Lord, let me hel ... unnh, let me ahhhhhh, "diddling her swollen clitoris vigorously and breathlessly gasping, "let me help return his ma ... maaanhood to him!" She came then, grunting and groaning, making animal sounds, thrusting against her fingers as orgasmic spasms wracked her so she flopped about in the tub, water slopping unto the floor.