Picture courtesy of Hazel, Age 14, California
Nursing’s first leading lady
- Florence Nightingale was the first modern nurse and a healthcare pioneer.
- Did you know she invented the pie chart? She would use them when teaching people about disease, and telling them to wash their hands (a lot)!
- In honor of her 200th birthday, 2020 was named the International Year of the Nurse.
Learn more about Florence, below.
Florence Nightingale is a towering figure in the nursing profession. No single person has contributed more to the field than she. Her work saved countless lives in the Crimean War and captured the world’s attention in the mid-1800s. She pioneered methods that have modernized hospital care, which are still in use today and continue to benefit everyone.
Nursing Before Nightingale
The nursing profession has a long and colorful history that dates back to antiquity. It has evolved a great deal over the millennia in terms of working conditions, overall approach, skill requirements and specific responsibilities. During the Middle Ages, hospitals did not exist in the way that they do today. Sick people throughout Europe would go to churches or monasteries for health care. Nurses were often nuns or monks who attended to the patients and frequently traveled to different towns whenever their services were required.
Things changed radically during the 17th century because of the Protestant Reformation. Formidable forces challenged the power of the church, and a lot of monasteries and churches were shut down. As a result, the hospitals within them also were forced to close. The nursing profession suffered heavily for two centuries because of this European upheaval, with a big drop in the number of practitioners.
Important nursing reforms occurred in the middle of the 19th century. Leading the way was a visionary named Florence Nightingale. She was part of a group of female nurses that went to Turkey in the middle of the Crimean War to treat British soldiers who were battling with the Russians. Nightingale and her colleagues found a chaotic army field hospital. Outside were rotting animal corpses, while inside there were piles of sewage and overcrowded wards.
Contributions to Nursing
Clearly, that hospital was not a place that could promote healing. Along with her team, Nightingale set out to change the hospital’s conditions. They identified key issues and implemented simple yet effective solutions. For example, they reduced overcrowding by imposing a 3-foot distance between patients. Flushing the sewers several times a day, disinfecting the latrines with peat charcoal and improving ventilation greatly improved sanitation. When they saw that cavalry horses were living in the hospital basement, the nurses had the animals moved to a different location.
The hospital environment improved dramatically after these interventions. It took just six months after their arrival to lower the mortality rate from 42.7 percent to just 2.2 percent. Nightingale’s attention to detail was exemplary. She monitored everything that went on inside the facility including the people who died and the reasons behind their demise. Her impressive charts identified poor sanitation as the culprit behind most of the wartime fatalities. She convinced government officials to change their policies in order to prevent these unnecessary deaths.
Florence Nightingale was named after the famous Italian city where she was born on May 12, 1820. Her parents envisioned a different path for their daughter, but she persisted in going to a nursing school in Germany. When she finished, she moved back to London and accepted a job at a hospital catering to sick governesses. Nightingale’s excellent work immediately turned heads, and she was promoted to the rank of superintendent less than a year after she started.
When the Crimean War broke out, England rallied its citizens to help the troops as they fought against the Russians. England’s side was losing a lot of soldiers in the field so the secretary of war asked Nightingale to help. She was instructed to bring a team of nurses to Turkey for the treatment of the sick and wounded. The nurses’ excellent work saved thousands of men from certain death. When the war ended, Nightingale went back to England as a celebrated national hero. Journalists reported extensively about life in the frontlines, so everybody knew her contributions to the victory.
The British government gave her $250,000 as a token of appreciation. This sum was massive at the time. She was able to establish her own hospital, which included a training school for nurses. She also published a book about her experiences in the Crimean War and the nursing practices that she developed on the field. This publication ensured that her legacy would live on. Her ideas formed the basis of modern nursing, and the basic techniques she pioneered are still widely practiced today.
Her International Influence
Nightingale fell ill and became bedridden in 1960, but the condition barely slowed her down. Her influence could be felt on an international scale. She became a sought-after figure in the world of medicine, particularly in matters that related to wartime treatment. Americans came to her for advice during the Civil War. Medical professionals wanted to get her thoughts on how to manage army hospitals and minimize casualties. Her guidance led to the establishment of the United States Sanitary Commission, which was tasked with attending to wounded soldiers.
Nightingale also was consulted by the medics who worked during the Franco-Prussian War. Later, she trained several nurses in her methodologies. Many of them became pillars of the profession in their own right. One of most accomplished was Linda Richards, the first trained nurse in the United States. Richards would go on to develop nurse training programs in the U.S. and Japan, thus spreading Nightingale’s methods far and wide.
Reduction of Diseases
Sanitation finally got the attention it deserved thanks to Florence Nightingale. She pushed for integrated health care that considered the environment as an important part of treatment. The death rate from infectious diseases tumbled in the U.S. and around the world. She also initiated the practice of regular nightly checks during her time in the Crimean War. Carrying a lamp, she made nightly rounds in the wards to see how the soldiers were doing. Now 24-hour patient care is considered the norm in hospitals everywhere.
Nightingale elevated the status of the nursing profession and left a legacy that will not be forgotten. By pushing for ‘integrated health care’, Nightingale helped usher in a modern incarnation of nursing that involved treating the whole patient.