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Florence Nightingale

founder of modern nursing

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy on May 12, 1820, the daughter of wealthy parents who had spent two years touring Europe for their honeymoon. Her childhood was spent at the two family estates in England with her mother, father, and sister Parthenope. Her mother taught her daughters the social graces and how to manage a large household; her father, a Cambridge University-educated man, taught them Greek, Latin, mathematics, and philosophy. Both girls were expected to marry into socially equal families, but Florence had other ideas.

Even as a young girl Florence displayed a passion for helping others. She cared for visiting babies and for sick farmers on her father's estates. She nursed her dolls in their imagined illnesses, and saved the life of an old shepherd's dog when its broken leg had condemned it to death. When she was 16, she decided that she must devote herself to service for others, but did not as yet know how to accomplish this.

Both Florence and her sister were presented to Queen Victoria when they entered British society, but Florence never took her "proper place" in that society. She turned down suitors, declined many parties, and spent most of her time studying health and reforms for the poor and suffering. Her family's opposition prevented her from working in a hospital, so Florence took it upon herself to leave home and study in a hospital in Paris. She then entered nursing training at the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses in Kaiserswerth, Germany. At 33, she became superintendent of a women's hospital in London.

At this time hospitals were more known for being dirty and disreputable than for their ability to care for the sick. What's more, nurses were often drunken women who were often too sick themselves to care for others. Florence made it her mission to improve these conditions, but she still had no real plan for carrying out her mission.

In 1854, Great Britain and France went to war with Russia in the Crimea. The British people were angry when they heard that their troops had been sent into battle without enough supplies, to die under terrible conditions. The Secretary of War asked Nightingale to take charge of nursing; she quickly accepted and sailed for the Crimea with 38 nurses. Stepping ashore at Scutari (across from present-day Istanbul), Nightingale and her little band of nurses faced a seemingly impossible task. Five hundred wounded troops had just arrived from the Battle of Balaclava, where the charge of the Light Brigade had taken place. Two-thirds of the British cavalrymen had been killed or wounded there in less than half an hour. The hospital was an old Turkish barracks, huge, dirty, and unfurnished. The wounded lay on floors, bleeding and uncared-for. Medical supplies, food, and bedding were practically non-existent. There were no cots, mattresses, or bandages. The situation seemed hopeless, but Nightingale was determined.

Florence found a few men well enough to clean the place and put them to work at once. She set up a nursing schedule for care, kitchen work, and diets. At night, she walked the four miles of corridors and wrote countless letters demanding supplies from British military officials. When the hospital was running better, she started classes to teach convalescent soldiers to read and write.

While visiting the front lines, Nightingale caught Crimean fever, and nearly died. By that time, she had become quite famous, and even Queen Victoria kept a watch on her recovery. After she returned to the Scutari hospital, Nightingale was urged to go to England to get her strength back, but she adamantly refused. Her success at Scutari became so widely recognized that she was given charge of all the army hospitals in the Crimea. By the end of the war, she had saved countless lives, and brought about worldwide reforms in hospital administration and nursing.

Nightingale was greeted by big celebrations when she returned to England in 1856, but instead of attending them she went quietly home to her family, and then moved to London. She used a gift of $150,000 to found the Nightingale Home for Nurses at Saint Thomas Hospital in London. By now a worldwide authority on scientific care of the sick, the United States asked her advice for setting up military hospitals during the Civil War.

The strain of overwork and her Crimean illness had severely injured her health and left her a semi-invalid. Often unable to leave her rooms, the world instead came to her. Ministers, heads of government, authors, reformers, and politicians came to ask her advice. By correspondence and constant reading, she made studies of conditions in the British Army in India and in hospitals. Her 800-page report to the War Department brought about the formation of the Royal Commission on the Health of the British Army in 1858. By 1860 the Royal Commission had resulted in an Army Medical School, greatly improved Army barracks and hospitals, and the best army statistics in Europe.

In 1860, Nightingale's best known work, Notes on Nursing, was published. It laid down the principles of nursing: careful observation and sensitivity to the patient's needs. From 1872, she devoted closer attention to the organization of the training school. Upon completion of training, Florence gave the nurses books and invited them to tea. Once trained the nurses were sent to staff hospitals in Britain and abroad and to establish nurse training schools on the "Nightingale Model."

Florence Nightingale received many public honors. For her contribution to Army statistics and comparative hospital statistics, she became the first woman to be elected a fellow of the Statistical Society (1860). In 1883, Queen Victoria awarded her the Royal Red Cross. In 1907, she became the first woman to be given the British Order of Merit. She died at her home on August 13, 1910, and was buried at St. Margaret's, East Wellow, near her parent's home, Embley Park.

Official Website

The Florence Nightingale Museum

See Also

Queen Victoria

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This page was last updated on 08/13/2018.