Shortly after Florence Nightingale arrived in Turkey during the Crimean War, wounded soldiers from two different battles arrived at the military hospital where she worked, overwhelming the facility that was already overcrowded and dirty. She called it the “Kingdom of Hell.” However, her revolutionary leadership vastly improved healthcare standards then — and now.
Because of her pioneering influence in the field of nursing, Nightingale’s birthday marks the end of National Nurses Week, which runs from May 6 to May 12 each year and raises awareness of the important role nurses continue to play in society.
Born in Florence, Italy, in 1820, Nightingale was the younger of two daughters in a well-to-do British family, which included her socialite mother, Frances, and wealthy landowner father, William.
As a child, Nightingale received a classical education. She was especially interested in math and science, and she excelled in many languages, including Italian, German, French, Greek, and Latin. With an immense sense of moral duty afforded to her by her Unitarian religion, she often ministered to the poor and ill people in the villages that neighbored her family’s Derbyshire and Hampshire estates in England. Eventually, she realized nursing was her divine purpose.
However, growing up in the Victoria Era, a young lady such as Nightingale was expected to marry a man of affluent means — not pursue a profession that had a reputation for being lowly and menial.
Despite her parents’ objections and determined to seek her true calling, Nightingale enrolled at a nursing school in Germany.
In the early 1850s, she returned home and worked as a nurse for ailing governesses in a London hospital, for which she was soon named superintendent. Around the same time, Nightingale also volunteered at a hospital in Middlesex, where she encountered unsanitary conditions in the midst of a cholera outbreak. From that point on, she made it her mission to improve hygiene practices to help lower death rates.
When reports came in that wounded British soldiers were suffering in dreadful conditions without basic medical supplies during the Crimean War, public outcry demanded improvements. Not having any women working in the military hospitals in and around Scutari, Turkey, where British troops were primarily based, the minister of war asked Nightingale to lead a team of nurses to the area.
When she and more than three dozen nurses arrived in Scutari in fall 1854, they discovered filthy conditions, inadequate supplies, uncooperative staff, and severe overcrowding. They immediately began to organize the hospitals, working to stock supplies of food, blankets, and beds. They also cleaned all of the wards and enlisted soldiers’ wives to help with laundry.
Most importantly, Nightingale established standards of care that spelled out necessities, such as adequate food, bathing, and clean clothing and dressings. She also addressed the psychological needs of patients through writing letters to relatives and providing recreational and educational activities.
In the evenings, she ministered to patients for emotional support. She made her rounds carrying a lamp down the dark hallways, which earned her the nickname “Lady with the Lamp.” Her accomplishments reduced the mortality rate to about 2 percent and earned the respect of soldiers and the medical establishment, as well as fame back home in England through soldiers’ letters and the press.
When Nightingale returned to Britain after the war, donations poured in for the Nightingale Fund, which enabled her to continue nursing reform in civilian hospitals, too.
Determined to prevent the medical mistakes of the war from happening again, she used statistical charts to illustrate that more men had died from diseases than from their wounds. Her most famous work, “Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not,” has been in continuous, worldwide publication since 1859. In it, she wrote, “Every nurse ought to be careful to wash her hands very frequently during the day,” realizing the correlation between hand washing and the prevention of disease.
With donations from the Nightingale Fund, she established the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas’ Hospital in 1860, as well as a school for midwives at King’s College Hospital in 1862.
After contracting brucellosis, a bacterial infection also known as Crimean fever, while working in Scutari, Nightingale never fully recovered and was often confined to her bed.
Determined to continue her life’s work, she tirelessly campaigned behind the scenes to improve health standards. Over the years, she wrote 13,000 letters and published more than 200 reports, books, and pamphlets on hospital planning and organization.
In 1883, she received the Royal Red Cross. Then, in 1907, she was the first woman to earn Britain’s highest civilian decoration, the Order of Merit. In 1909, she was also the first woman to receive the Freedom of the City of London honor.
After falling ill and seeming to recover, Nightingale passed away unexpectedly on August 13, 1910, at the age of 90.
In her honor, the International Committee of the Red Cross awards the Florence Nightingale Medal to exceptional nurses and nursing aides for their outstanding courage and devotion to the sick and wounded victims of war or natural disaster.
Just as Florence Nightingale paved the way for modern nursing, Duquesne University’s Online RN-BSN degree program can help prepare nurses to drive positive change in the field. Courses include contemporary nursing and health-care issues, population-based health and community health nursing, and nursing ethics across the lifespan.