This article is part of our celebration of Women’s History Month where we feature stories of remarkable women who have shaped our world. In this article, we give tribute to Florence Nightingale, known as the founder of modern nursing.
12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), known as the “Lady with the Lamp,” was a British nurse most famous for her work during the Crimean war, including her establishment of standards of care for patients and advocacy of improved sanitation.
Nightingale did not fit into the mold of what was expected of a Victorian woman. As a child, she was tutored by her wealthy father. At age 16, she knew that she wanted to be a nurse, despite her parents’ objections to this “lower-class” work. She did not marry, despite proposals, and was known to be ambitious, driven, and able to work around power hierarchies.
Nightingale attended nursing school in Kaiserwerth, Germany and trained in Paris with the Sisters of Mercy. She worked as superintendent at a London hospital for governesses and treated prostitutes during a cholera epidemic. In 1854 during the Crimean War, Nightingale was sent to modern-day Istanbul to work at the Barrack Hospital at Scutari. Here she oversaw 38 nurses and tended to thousands of allied troops, while managing a tense situation with resentful physicians. Her work to improve sanitary conditions at Scutari significantly reduced the death rate.
Nightingale also visited the front lines of the war and worked there to improve the water supply, buildings’ insulation and the soldiers’ diet. Despite falling ill in Crimea – with pain that plagued her for the rest of her life – she returned to the peninsula twice more and stayed for months at a time.
News coverage of the war, hospital conditions and Nightingale’s nursing activities resulted in a newfound fame upon her return to England in 1856. She met with Queen Victoria and analyzed casualty statistics for a Royal Commission, finding that seven times as many soldiers died of disease as from combat injuries. She published this data with William Farr in 1858 and was made a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, the first woman to be admitted. Due to her analyses, the British government worked to improve hospitals throughout the country, set up the Army Medical College and funded a sewage system in London.
Nightingale published Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not in 1859 and founded the first nurses’ training school in London at St. Thomas Hospital in 1860. She continued to have an impact throughout her life, supporting public health campaigns, criticizing the Poor Laws, and opposing the arrest of prostitutes for disease. Her definition of wounded soldiers as “neutral” and her belief that caregivers should be protected during battle were founding beliefs of the International Committee of the Red Cross, founded in 1863.
In 1907, Nightingale became the first woman to receive the Order of Merit. She died in 1910, at the age of 90.
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