Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820. Her father, William, a prominent banker, and mother, Fanny, provided a very privileged life for Florence and her sister, Frances. Their days were spent entertaining guests, reading, sewing, and attending social events.
To the surprise of the family, Florence was not interested in a traditional role: marriage, society life and money. Instead, she wanted to help the poor. In Victorian Britain, wealthy women like Florence weren’t expected to work outside the home. But Florence saw something very different for her future. When she was 16 years old, she believed she was called to help people suffering from injury and disease.
Against the will of her parents, Florence went to study nursing at a Christian school for women. There, she learned how to care for patients, and the importance of hospital cleanliness. By 1853, she was running a women’s hospital in London, where she did a fantastic job improving the working conditions as well as patient care.
When the Crimean War broke out – with Britain, France and Turkey on one side, and Russia on the other — British troops went off to fight in an area now part of Ukraine. News of dying soldiers with no medical care reached home. The British Minister of War, Sidney Herbert, asked Florence to lead a team of nurses to help the wounded in Scutari, Turkey.
When they arrived, the nurses found the Scutari hospital in a terrible state. It was overcrowded and filthy, with blocked drains, broken toilets, and rats running everywhere. Wounded soldiers had to sleep on the dirty floor, without blankets, clean water, or fresh food. Some were lying in their own feces. They often arrived with diseases like typhus, cholera and dysentery. More men died from these diseases than from their injuries.
Florence knew conditions needed to improve for the soldiers to recover. With funds from back home, she bought better medical equipment and decent food, and paid for workers to clear the drains. Together with her team, she cleaned the wards, set up a hospital kitchen, and provided the wounded soldiers with quality care – bathing them, dressing their wounds, and feeding them.
Florence Nightingale cared deeply for her patients. She would write letters home for the soldiers, and at night, she’d visit her patients to make sure they were comfortable. Because she carried a lantern on these visits, they started calling her “The Lady with the Lamp.”
By the time she returned to England in 1856, Florence had made quite a name for herself. The newspapers wrote about her work in the Crimea, and she was lauded as a national hero. Queen Victoria wrote her a letter to say thank you for everything she had done.
But Florence had no care for fame. She knew there was much more work to be done. She began a campaign to improve conditions in military hospitals, ushering a wave of health reforms that spread from the military to civilian life.
She was very gifted with statistics and data, and is credited as the inventor of the pie chart. Her data made it clear that her recommended reforms could led to better outcomes. In 1858, Florence Nightingale became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society in honor of her work with numbers and reporting.
In 1859, she published “Notes on Nursing,” which is still in print today. In 1860, she opened the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. Not only did the school provide excellent nurse training, it made nursing a respectable career for women.
Florence was greatly appreciated for everything she did for nursing, and for saving the lives of thousands.
In 1907, she became the first woman to receive the Order of Merit, an award given by the queen for superior work.
Florence Nightingale died on August 13, 1910, but she will forever be remembered as the founder of modern nursing.
“The greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.”
– Florence Nightingale