LONDON (AP) _ Kate Prinsley admits she underestimated Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, before becoming curator of the world's first museum of Nightingalia.

''I always thought she was very dull, a simpering Victorian,'' said Ms. Prinsley, whose forte was museums, not medicine. ''I had no idea that she was, I think, a very shrewd woman, a real operator. I had no idea she was quite so tough.''

For those with only faded schoolbook recollections of ''The Lady with the Lamp,'' the Florence Nightingale Museum has a tale to tell.

Opened three months ago, it recounts, often in her own words, how a coddled girl defied her parents for a career in which she laid the foundations of modern nursing and instituted public health reforms that changed hospitals worldwide.

Her work in statistics still amazes bureaucrats. She became an expert on India without ever going there. She wrote 200 books and major papers, and kept working into her 90th, and last, year.

''She was much more than a nurse,'' says Patricia Mowbray, a Nightingale expert. ''The horrors of the hospitals would have gone on unchanged if she'd been just a nurse.''

The museum is at London's St. Thomas' Hospital, home of the nursing school Nightingale founded in 1860. Among items on display are her medicine chest and a replica of the lamp she carried in the Crimean War hospitals where she did her most famous work improving conditions for the wounded and sick.

''What a comfort it was to see her pass,'' one soldier wrote. ''We could kiss her shadow as it fell and lay our heads on the pillow again content.''

Born in 1820, the moody Florence was interested in the sick from an early age. But nice girls did not become nurses in those days. The profession was considered disreputable. Her parents refused to let her take it up, and she studied nursing in secret.

''Trust me, help me ... Give me your blessing,'' she pleaded in a letter to her family. They did not reply.

Not until she was 33 did she get a real nursing job, as administrator of a small London hospital called the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances.

Nightingale reorganized it so thoroughly that when word of the horrendous conditions at the Crimean warfront reached England, she was asked to lead a nursing expedition.

''Not a sponge, nor a rag of linen, not anything have I left,'' she wrote in 1854 soon after her arrival at the dank Barrack Hospital in Scutari, Turkey.

But within a month she had organized proper kitchens, repaired many of the four miles of wards, ordered soap and a screen for operations because, she said, when a soldier due for an amputation ''sees his comrade die today under the knife, it diminishes his chances.'' The museum recreates the scene.

Florence Nightingale came home two years later in poor health but a national heroine. Poems and songs were written for her and 44,000 pounds, today worth more than $1.6 million, was raised for what would become the Nightingale School of Nursing.

She shunned publicity, and spent most of the rest of her life as a recluse, bedridden for many years. She never married, having turned down the man she loved for the sake of her calling.

But from her home she barraged the government with proposals for hospital reform, for helping the sick and poor and for the army. She calculated that more soldiers died in peacetime from poor hygiene than in war, and urged such innovations as ventilation, clean linen, and plants to lift patients' spirits.

Her 1859 ''Notes on Hospitals'' begins: ''It may seem a strange principle to enunciate as the very first requirement in a hospital that it should do the sick no harm.''

In fact, says Ms. Prinsley, Florence Nightingale's work was so precise and detailed that health researchers still study it.

The museum also operates as a research center and a trust that awards grants to nurses in Britain and abroad.