Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910) Volunteered to nurse soldiers during the Crimean War. Nightingale’s analysis of mortality rates helped to improve hospital practices. She also helped improve the standard and prestige of the nursing profession. She is considered to be the founder of modern nursing.
Born in 1820 to a wealthy family, Florence was educated at home by her father. She aspired to serve others, in particular, she wanted to become a nurse. Her parents were opposed to her aspirations – at that time, nursing was not seen as an attractive or ‘respectable’ profession. Despite her parents’ disapproval, Florence went ahead and trained to be a nurse. Florence later wrote that she felt suffocated by the vanities and social expectations of her upbringing. On one occasion, sitting in her parent’s garden, she felt a call from God to serve others. She resolved to try and follow God’s will in being of service to others.
Florence had the opportunity to marry, but she refused a couple of suitors. She felt marriage would enslave her in domestic responsibilities.
In 1853, the Crimea war broke out. This was a bloody conflict leading to many casualties on both sides. Reports of the British casualties were reported in the press; in particular, it was noted that the wounded lacked even the most basic of first aid treatment. Many soldiers were dying unnecessarily. This was a shock to the British public, as it was one of the first wars to be reported vividly in the press back home.
Later in 1855, Florence Nightingale was asked (with the help of her old friend Sydney Herbert) to travel to the Crimea and organise a group of nurses. Many of the initial applicants were unsuitable, and Florence was strict in selecting and training the other nurses. Nightingale was helped in using nurses trained by Elizabeth Fry’s school of nurses. Nightingale was an admirer of Fry, who amongst other things campaigned for better prison conditions.
Florence was very glad to be able to take up the post and put in to use her training as a nurse. They were based at the staff hospital at Scutari. She was overwhelmed by the primitive and chaotic conditions. There were insufficient beds for the men and conditions were terrible; the place smelt, was dirty, and even had rats running around spreading disease. Speaking of Scutari Hospital, Florence Nightingale said:
“The British high command had succeeded in creating the nearest thing to hell on earth.”
In the beginning, the nurses were not even allowed to treat the dying men; they were only instructed to clean the hospital. But, eventually, the number of casualties became so overwhelming the doctors asked Florence and her team of nurses to help.
A contemporary of Florence Nightingale was Jamaican nurse, Mary Seacole, who worked on her own initiative from a base in Balaclava near the front line.
Florence’s attitude included strict discipline for her other nurses, who always wore a highly visible uniform. The efforts of Florence and her team of nurses were greatly appreciated by the wounded soldiers and gradually positive news reports filtered back home. During her time in the Crimea, she developed a persona as being “The Lady with the Lamp.”
By the time she returned home, she had become a national heroine and was decorated with numerous awards including one from Queen Victoria.
Florence Nightingale at St Thomas Hospital
After the war, she didn’t appreciate the fame but continued to work for the improvement of hospital conditions, writing to influential people encouraging them to improve hygiene standards in hospitals. It was after her return from the Crimea that some of her most influential work occurred.
With the help of donations to the Nightingale Fund, she was able to found a training school for nurses at St Thomas’s Hospital, London. In (1859) she wrote Notes on Nursing. This became a standard reference book for those entering the nursing profession and also the general public who wished to learn basic techniques. Her writings and example were highly influential in the direction of nursing in the Nineteenth Century. She inspired nursing in the American Civil War, and in 1870 trained Linda Richards, who returned to the US where she developed the nursing profession in America.
Nightingale was a pioneer in using statistical methods to quantify the effect of different practices. She also had an ability to present dense statistical data in an easy to read format. She made extensive use of pie charts and circular histograms to clarify the essential points.
Ironically, she found that some of her own methods of treating soldiers decreased recovery rates. But, this scientific approach to dealing with hospital treatment helped to improve standards and the quality of care.
As well as nursing, Nightingale was concerned with other areas of social reform. This included better health care in Workhouses and schools and reform to the prostitution laws which often victimised female prostitutes. Nightingale was also concerned about the famine in India and made detailed investigations into the standard of sanitation and hygiene in India. Nightingale took a practical approach, endeavouring to improve aspects of life
“I never lose an opportunity of urging a practical beginning, however small, for it is wonderful how often in such matters the mustard-seed germinates and roots itself.”
Nightingale also wrote about the role of women in society – she called for women to be less passive and take a greater role in society.
“Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity — these three — and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?”
– Cassandra (1860)
Nightingale herself was a leading pioneer in taking an active lead in the political life of the country at a time when female activism was rare. At the same time, Nightingale didn’t always agree with women’s rights activists and could be dismissive of other women:
“I have never found one woman who has altered her life by one iota for me or my opinions.”
Florence Nightingale took an active interest in religious and spiritual issues. She was a member of the Church of England but took a broad ecumenical approach – believing there was truth in different Christian denominations and also Eastern religions. She also wrote on mysticism and the religious practice of seeking divinity from within.
“Where shall I find God? In myself. That is the true Mystical Doctrine. But then I myself must be in a state for Him to come and dwell in me. This is the whole aim of the Mystical Life; and all Mystical Rules in all times and countries have been laid down for putting the soul into such a state.”
Florence Nightingale – Notes from Devotional Authors of the Middle Ages (1873-1874)
Florence Nightingale died at the age of 90 in 1910.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Florence Nightingale”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 25th Nov 2010. Last Updated 8th March 2019.
Florence Nightingale – Avenging Angel at Amazon
Florence Nightingale – Letters from Crimea at Amazon
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Florence Nightingale Links
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- Florence Nightingale at BBC
- Florence Nightingale Museum