Today, May 12, is the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale.
Florence Nightingale, born May 12, 1820, in Florence, Italy, was the daughter of William Nightingale of Embly Park, Hampshire, a wealthy landowner. Her father never had a son, and they became very close friends. He took charge of her education, and taught her many subjects from Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian to history, philosophy, and math.
At 17, she heard a call from God to an unnamed “great cause.” She rejected several suitors, much to her mother’s dismay, and at 25, told her parents she wanted to become a nurse. Her parents opposed the idea, since they were of the upper-class, and nursing was a “working class” job.
Florence met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to qualify as “doctor” in the US, at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. Blackwell encouraged her, and finally, in 1851, Florence’s father gave his permission to train as a nurse.
At 31, Florence studied medicine at the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses in Kaiserwerth, Germany. At 33, she was appointed resident lady superintendent at an invalid women’s hospital in Harley Street, London.
In March, 1853, the Crimean War started, with Russia invading Turkey, and Britain and France coming to Turkey’s aid. A cholera epidemic ensued. Mary Seacole attempted to aid the British Army, but was rejected. When public outcry caused the Army to think again, Florence volunteered and was given permission to take 38 nurses to Turkey.
Florence was appalled by conditions in Army hospitals. Wounds were not cleaned, soldiers laid in their sickbeds in the uniforms with blood and gore caked on them. Only 1 in 6 wounded soldiers died of their wounds. Most would die of illness and disease.
Of course the military officers took offense to Nightingale’s demands to straighten up the hospitals. They took it as an affront to their professionalism. She eventually used The Times to report details of the conditions until the Army let her organize the barracks and improve sanitation.
In 1856, Florence returned to England as a national heroine. She began a campaign to improve the quality of nursing, hygiene, and elementary care, in military hospitals. In October, 1956, she had a long discussion with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and in the following year, presented evidence at the 1857 Sanitary Commission. Eventually, this caused the Army Medical College to be formed.
Florence published two books, Notes on the Hospital (1859) and Notes on Nursing (1859), to spread her opinions on reform. She raised money through wealthy friends and her contact at The Times to found the Nightingale School & Home for Nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital. She also had strong opinions on women’s rights, which she shared in her book Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truths (1859).
She was strongly opposed to the passing of the Contagious Diseases Act, but refused to become involved in Josephine Butler’s campaign. She disapproved of women making speeches in public. When confronted about her apparent lack of support for women doctors, she said that it was more important to have better trained nurses than women doctors.
Later in life, Florence suffered from poor health, going blind in 1895. She become a complete invalid soon after, but lived another 15 years before her death in London on August 13, 1910.