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Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale and Nursing

May 12, 1820 – August 13, 1910
Italy, Great Britain, Crimea, Russia

Florence Nightingale was a famous English woman who changed history through her pioneering efforts in the areas of nursing, mathematics/statistics and the recognition of professional women.

Florence Nightingale was born of wealthy parents in the Italian city of Florence on May 12, 1820. She became a very personable, witty and confident person. Florence led an exciting and privileged life, playing with rich friends and visiting many interesting places. 

A significant consequence of being a child of wealthy parents was the ability of Florence to receive an advanced education. During the Victorian times of the 1800s, few ordinary people had access to higher education. Moreover, most women had very little education and highly educated women were extremely rare.

William Nightingale, Florence’s father was determined that his daughters would receive an education equal to and better than that of the smartest and richest people around. Florence and her sister, Parthenope, were taught to speak Italian, Latin and Greek, along with their native English. They learned history, geography and mathematics.

Florence developed a keen interest in mathematics and displayed an unusual gift of understanding complex mathematical problems and concepts. She received special tutoring from James Sylvester, a renowned mathematician and scientist. 

At the young age of 16, Florence believed that she heard God’s voice urging her to do something special to help others. As she grew older, she began to take an interest in how sick people were cared for and how they regained their health. In her home town of Romney, Hampshire, she talked with many people in the surrounding area about how they worked to help the sick. She became obsessed with learning more about healthcare.

Florence Nightingale and Nursing

In her twenties, Florence decided that she would become a nurse and fulfill her intense desire to help the sick. Her parents were greatly surprised and upset that Florence wished to be a nurse. In the time of Florence’s life, nursing was not considered an important or prestigious profession and one that was usually performed by poor men and women. Despite her parent’s opposition, Florence and some of her friends attended nursing school at the world famous German hospital in Kaiserwerth. 

Florence returned home to England a proud and successfully trained nurse. Ironically, her first major nursing job was to care for her parents and sister, who all became ill during the years of 1851-1853. 

In 1853 Florence obtained a position of managing a small private hospital in London. During the year of 1854 Florence kept busy helping sick and suffering people affected by a major outbreak of cholera that spread throughout the London area and beyond.

Crimean War

A major turning event in Florence’s life happened in 1854. War broke out with the British, French and Ottoman Turks fighting against the Russian Empire. This war became known as the Crimean War as a result of much of the fighting occurred on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Fighting during the war was more brutal than anyone expected and casualties quickly mounted. British troops were dying due to a lack of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and medical supplies. A family friend of Florence and a British government official, Sidney Herbert, approached her and asked if she could organize a group of nurses and other healthcare workers and travel to the Crimea to give aid to the desperate, wounded soldiers. 

Florence and her group of 38 volunteer nurses arrived in Scutari, an area in the Turkish capital of Constantinople, on November 4, 1854. This area contained the main British hospital. Florence was horrified to observe the poor conditions of the hospital. The hospital was filthy; plumbing and sewer drainage was blocked and rats and fleas were everywhere. 

In addition to quickly helping the wounded soldiers, Florence worked feverishly to improve the overall condition of the hospital and surrounding support buildings in the Scutari area. She virtually took over the operation of the hospital and had sewer and water systems fixed and purified, insured a supply of clean bandages, bedding and other supplies and instituted a strict nursing timetable to insure that the soldiers were cared for and attended to on a regular basis to improve recovery. 

Florence became very popular with the wounded and sick soldiers. She was affectionately referred to as the “Lady with the Lamp”, due to her nightly routines of checking the patients well being. 

Data Collection and Record Keeping

Florence completely revamped and modernized the entire healthcare delivery and sanitation systems of the British hospital system in Scutari and beyond. Florence used her immense talent in mathematics to pioneer new techniques of statistical data collection, analysis and display/delivery to help improve the poor medical care and unsanitary conditions of the established healthcare system. 

Florence implemented many innovative records keeping and impact analysis systems based on pioneering statistical techniques. She developed the Polar-Area Diagram to identify, plot and display the needless deaths of soldiers caused by the lack of ongoing, dedicated care, lack of sufficient food and unsanitary conditions. 

Florence proved that statistics provided a superior means of learning the overall status of healthcare delivery and such data collection and analysis led to improved medical and surgical delivery.  Her innovative Model Hospital Statistical Form helped hospitals to better collect and generate consistent healthcare maintenance data for use in improving healthcare delivery.

Florence returned to England in 1856 when the Crimean War ended. She was considered a national heroine and celebrated throughout the land. She received thousands of congratulatory letters and there were even Florence Nightingaleornaments sold throughout Great Britain in celebration.

Anxious to learn more about her experience and new ideas, Queen Victoria met with Florence in Balmoral, Scotland to obtain Florence’s advice on how military hospitals could be improved throughout the British Empire.

Florence published Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army (1857) and Notes on Nursing/Hospitals (1859), which described her experience and innovative ideas on caring for the sick. Convinced that all nurses should have superior training as she and few others had, Florence instituted the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London in 1860. Graduates of her school were called Nightingale Nurses.

With her books, public appearances and the spread of Nightingale Nurses, Florence’s healthcare reforms and innovative practices spread throughout the world. Florence even gave advice to American nurses and healthcare workers during the American Civil War of 1861-1865.

Awards and Recognition

Florence became a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1858 and was made an honorary member of the American Statistical Association in 1874. She received the Royal Red Cross from Queen Victoria in 1907 and later that year she received the Order of Merit from King Edward VII, the first ever given to a woman.

Florence Nightingale lived to a ripe old age of 90 and died August 13, 1910. She is buried in a Hampshire churchyard in England. Despite her worldwide fame, she has a simple tombstone which lists only the initials of her name and the years she was born and died.

Truly one of history’s most remarkable women, virtually all of us have experienced or will experience superior healthcare in our time of need due to the efforts and foresight of Florence Nightingale.


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