WiSW: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale is known as the founder of modern nursing. She was born in 1820 to a wealthy British Family at a villa in Florence, Italy. Her family moved back to England in 1821. She was mainly educated by her father, whose ideas about advancing women’s education were unconventional for the time. Florence studied history, mathematics, literature, Italian, and philosophy. She had an extraordinary ability to analyze and connect data. She became very close with a hostess named Mary Clarke, who was 27 years older than Florence. Mary shared stimulating conversation with Florence and importantly, promoted the idea that women are equal to men. 

In 1837 Florence began to have visions which she interpreted as calls from God to devote her life to serving others. Though, she didn’t announce to her family that she had decided to enter the field of nursing until 1844. Her family strongly opposed this decision and Florence had to work hard to educate herself in the science of nursing. Florence rejected her suiters, knowing a marriage would interfere with her call to help others through nursing. She traveled extensively in Greece, Germany, Egypt, and Italy. She once rescued an owl from a group of children who were torturing it, named it Athena, nursed it back to health, and carried it around in her pocket. In Thebes she felt again that she was called to God, writing “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for him alone without reputation.” 

Florence’s father had given her an annual income of  £500, about $65,000 today, with which she could live very comfortably and pursue her career. In 1850 Florence visited a Lutheran religious community in Germany where she helped a pastor and deaconesses nurse the deprived and sick. Florence regarded this as the first important foundational nursing experience of her life. She received medical training in the facility for four months, and even published an anonymous essay about her findings there. In 1853 Florence became a superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlemen, in London.

In 1854 Florence was sent to the Ottoman Empire with her staff of 38 female volunteer nurses, and 15 Catholic nuns, to attend to the wounded of the Crimean War. Her team discovered that the present medical staff was over worked and under funded. The hygiene at the British camp was terrible, and soldiers and staff suffered mass fatal infections. Lucien Baudens wrote of Florence at the camp, “This frail young woman … embraced in her solicitude the sick of three armies.” Florence sent a plea for more resources, and the British government built the camp a new hospital, which ended up having less than a tenth of the death rate of the prior facilities. Nightingale implemented hand washing techniques in the hospital, which were previously unused. Her sanitation efforts brought the death rate at the hospital from an estimated 42% to 2%. During her first winter soldiers were dying from typhus, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery, ten times more than of battle wounds. 4,077 soldiers died at the hospital during Florence’s first winter. Florence believed the death rate to be caused by lack of supplies, poor ventilation, poor nutrition, defective sewers, and overwork. She was perhaps the most vocal advocate for sanitary living conditions for solders and hospital workers during the Crimean War, later in her career continuing to advocate for sanitary hospital design and for the public practicing sanitation at home.

During the Crimean War, the times published a report which included Florence as, The Lady with the Lamp: “She is a “ministering angel” without any exaggeration in these hospitals, and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every poor fellow’s face softens with gratitude at the sight of her. When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.” In Crimea in 1855 the Nightingale Fund was established to train nurses. Florence’s 1856 letters describing medical spas in the Ottoman Empire pioneered the idea of medical tourism. Florence used £45,000 from the Nightingale Fund to start the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. Nurses are trained and deployed from this school to this day. In her 1859 book Notes on Nursing, Florence wrote “Every day sanitary knowledge, or the knowledge of nursing, or in other words, of how to put the constitution in such a state as that it will have no disease, or that it can recover from disease, takes a higher place. It is recognised as the knowledge which every one ought to have – distinct from medical knowledge, which only a profession can have”. 

In 1870 Florence mentored the first American trained nurse, Linda Richards, and sent her back to the U.S. equipped to start quality nursing schools. Later in life she received numerous awards and recognitions such as the Royal Red Cross (1883). She was also the first woman to receive the Order of Merit (1907) for her work and devotion to bettering hospital conditions and nursing practices at home. Florence Nightingale passed away in her sleep in 1910, at the age of 90. 

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