Who Was Florence Nightingale?

National Nursing Week falls surrounding the week of Florence Nightingale’s birthday, on May 12th. Florence Nightingale is often thought of as the creator of nursing as we know it today, a woman who devoted her life to helping others and paved the way for nurses today. This year marks the 200th anniversary of her birth.

Early Years

Florence was well-educated at a young age, tutored in mathematics and the classics by her father. As such, her parents tried to discourage Florence from becoming a nurse as they considered it an unsuitable job. But Florence strongly believed in the work and pursued it as a career. After years of training as a caregiver at the highly revered Kaiserswerth nursing school in Germany, Florence began serving as superintendent at a hospital for governesses.

On the Frontlines

In 1854, with 38 nurses under her command, Florence was dispatched to a Barrack Hospital at Scutari, after British troops invaded the Russian-held Crimean Peninsula. She arrived in horrendous conditions – soldiers ravaged by frostbite, gangrene, dysentery and cholera. During her first winter at Scutari, over 4,077 soldiers died, primarily from diseases. It wasn’t until the British government dispatched a sanitary commission to Scutari in 1855 that conditions improved. Cleaning out latrines, cesspits and flushing sewers, the mortality rate dropped from nearly 43 percent to just over two percent.

In May 1855, a 34-year-old Florence had sailed from Scutari across the Black Sea to inspect medical facilities near the front line. She traveled extensively to inspect other nearby hospitals. During her time, Florence fell ill with what was later identified to be spondylitis, an inflammation of the vertebrae. This would leave her in pain and bedridden for much of her life. Despite her illness, she was determined to work until the last of the British troops returned home, returning twice more to provide aid. After two years in the conflict zone, she had been established as a selfless and heroic figure in the public eye back home in England.

Improving the Future

Following this period of time, Florence focused on research. After gathering data on military hospitals, she discovered that nearly seven times as many British soldiers had died of disease in the Crimean War than in combat. She also found that deaths dropped rapidly once hospitals at the front were cleaned up. Influenced by Florence’s extensive research, improvements were made to hospitals and the sewage system in London.

Despite often being bedridden, Florence continued to gather data. She sent out questionnaires to hospital administrators, collected and analyzed results, and established investigative commissions. In 1858, she became the first woman to be made a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. In 1860, Florence founded the country’s first nurses’ training school, St. Thomas Hospital in London. Perhaps one of Florence’s most famous actions was her belief that soldiers injured in war should be granted protection on the battlefield. That belief would become central to the International Committee of the Red Cross, founded in 1863.

Florence, known as the “Lady with the Lamp”, died at the age of 90, in 1910, three years after becoming the first woman to receive the Order of Merit.

To learn more about Florence Nightingale, click here.