Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820, in Florence, Italy. Her father was a wealthy landowner by the name of William Edward Nightingale; her mother, Frances, hailed from a family of merchants and took pride in socializing with people of prominent standing. Florence was provided with a classical education, including studies in mathematics, German, French and Italian. She proved to be an above-average student, however she was somewhat awkward in social situations and preferred to avoid being the center of attention whenever possible.
From a young age, Florence was active in philanthropy, ministering to the ill and poor people in the village neighboring her family’s estate. She eventually came to the conclusion that nursing was her calling.
When she told her parents of her ambitions to become a nurse, they had a fit. During the Victorian Era, English women had almost no property rights, and a young lady of Florence’s social status was expected to marry a man of means to ensure her class standing, not take up a job that was viewed by the upper social classes as lowly menial labor.
However, determined to pursue her true calling despite her parents’ objections, Florence eventually enrolled as a nursing student in 1850 at the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses in Kaiserswerth(now a part of Düsseldorf,) Germany.
After her training, Florence returned to London where she took a nursing job in a Harley Street hospital for ailing governesses. Her performance there so impressed her employer that she was promoted to superintendent. Like other medical practitioners of the period, Florence knew nothing of germs, and in fact was an adherent of the prevailing miasma* theory, but her belief that poor hygiene was responsible for disease contributed greatly to a lowering of the death rate during a cholera outbreak in her hospital.
*The miasma theory held that all diseases were the product of environmental factors such as contaminated water, foul air, and poor hygiene.
In October of 1853, the Crimean War broke out. Allied British and French forces battled the Russian Empire for control of Ottoman territory. Thousands of British soldiers were sent to the Black Sea, where supplies quickly dwindled. By 1854, some 18,000 soldiers had been admitted into military hospitals. At the time, there were no female nurses stationed at hospitals in the Crimea, and when the reports of the appalling conditions reached England, the population was outraged to learn about the neglect of their ill and injured soldiers. Military hospitals in the area were not only horribly understaffed, but worse, soldiers also languished in appallingly unsanitary conditions.
In late 1854, Nightingale received a letter from the Secretary of War asking her to organize a corps of nurses to tend to the sick and fallen soldiers in the Crimea. Given full control of the operation, she quickly assembled a team of almost three dozen nurses from a variety of religious orders and sailed with them to Constantinople just a few days later.
Although they had been warned of the horrid conditions there, nothing could have prepared Nightingale and her nurses for what they saw when they arrived at Scutari, the British base hospital in Constantinople. The hospital sat on top of a large cesspool, which contaminated the water and the building itself. Patients lay in their own excrement on stretchers strewn throughout the hallways. Rodents and bugs scurried past them. On Florence’s first day, 400 fresh casualties arrived from the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, half-starved after their 300 mile voyage across the Black Sea. The most basic supplies, such as bandages and soap, grew increasingly scarce as the number of ill and wounded steadily increased. Even water needed to be rationed. As in all wars, more soldiers died from infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera than from injuries incurred in battle.
The no-nonsense Nightingale quickly set to work. She procured hundreds of scrub brushes and asked the least infirm patients to scrub the inside of the hospital from floor to ceiling. Nightingale herself spent every waking minute caring for the soldiers. In the evenings she moved through the dark hallways carrying a lamp while making her rounds, ministering to patient after patient. Her work reduced the hospital’s death rate by two-thirds.
The soldiers, who were both moved and comforted by her endless supply of compassion, took to calling her “the Lady with the Lamp.”
Nightingale remained at Scutari for a year and a half overseeing other improvements such as a new kitchen where nutricious food for patients could be prepared. She also established a laundry so that patients would have clean linens, as well as a classroom and library for intellectual stimulation and entertainment.
She left in the summer of 1856, once the Crimean conflict was resolved, and returned to her childhood home at Lea Hurst. To her surprise she was met with a hero’s welcome, which the humble nurse did her best to avoid. The previous year, Queen Victoria had rewarded Nightingale’s work by presenting her with an engraved brooch that came to be known as the “Nightingale Jewel” and by granting her a “thank you” award of $250,000 from the British government.
Nightingale decided to use the money to fund the establishment of St. Thomas Hospital, and within it, the Nightingale Training School for Nurses. Florence became a figure of public admiration. Poems, songs and plays were written and dedicated to her, young women aspired to be like her. Eager to follow her example, even women from the wealthy upper classes started enrolling at the training school. Thanks to Nightingale, nursing was no longer thought of a menial labor by the upper classes; it had, in fact, come to be viewed as an honorable vocation.
Based on her observations during the Crimea War, Nightingale wrote Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army, a massive report published in 1858 analyzing her experience and proposing reforms for other military hospitals. Her research would spark a total restructuring of the War Office’s administrative department, including the establishment of a Royal Commission for the Health of the Army in 1857.
While at Scutari, Nightingale contracted brucellosis, also known as Crimean fever (now known as Undulant Fever,) and would never fully recover. By the time she was 38 years old, she was homebound and routinely bedridden, and would be so for the remainder of her long life. Fiercely determined and dedicated as ever to improving health care and alleviating patients’ suffering, Nightingale continued her work from her bed, writing some 200 books, pamphlets and articles, and even found the time to campaign for hospitals to be arranged in separate wings connected by corridors with windows on opposite walls to promote ventilation.
Throughout the U.S. Civil War, she was frequently consulted about how to best manage field hospitals, and also served as an authority on public sanitation issues in India for both the military and civilians, although she had never been to India herself.
In 1907, she was conferred the Order of Merit by King Edward, and received the Freedom of the City of London the following year, becoming the first woman to receive the honor. In May of 1910, she received a celebratory message from King George on her 90th birthday. She died shortly after that, on Aug 13, 1910.
Although several men courted Nightingale, she never married for fear that it would interfere with her nursing career.
For additional info:
- Three-minute video from Biography.com
- The Florence Nightingale Museum, sits at the site of the original Nightingale Training School for Nurses, and contains more than 2,000 artifacts commemorating the life and career of the “The Lady witih the Lamp.” To this day, Florence Nightingale is broadly acknowledged and revered as the pioneer of modern nursing.