On August 13, 1910, Florence Nightingale died in her sleep. She is remembered as the founder of modern nursing practices, and for changing nurses from “drunken hussies” to uniformed professionals.
Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820, in Florence, Italy, while her parents were vacationing there in 1820. She and her older sister, Parthenope, were both named after their birth places. At that time, Florence was not known as a girl’s name. Her parents were rich, high society people in England and they wanted nothing but the absolute best for their daughters. Since Mr. Nightingale could not find a tutor that he thought smart enough to teach his girls, he taught them himself.
When Florence reached the age of sixteen, studies were set aside, and she was presented to the court, and began a life of many parties and Continent-wide travel.
At 17, Florence recorded in her diary that she felt that God was calling her to some service. She did not know what this service might be, but she was afraid she would make herself unfit for it if she continued living the partying life her social status required.
When a friend died in childbirth, Florence asked to take care of the baby instead of going to parties in London. Her parents would not let her, believing she should go to London and get married. While in London, a suitor asked her to marry him, but she declined, still not knowing what service God had in store for her.
About the same time, Dr. Howe and his wife Julia (author of “Mine Eyes and Seen the Glory”) were visiting the Nightingales. Florence asked him what he thought about her becoming a nurse. Dr. Howe said that it would be unusual, and unusual things were considered unsuitable. He told her to act on her inspiration.
Florence thought her calling must be to nursing. She asked her family if she could work at an infirmary run by a family friend. Her parents were shocked and angry. At that time, hospitals were filthy places, and the smell was nauseating. Nurses usually drank heavily to numb their senses. In fact, the head nurse of a London hospital told her that she never knew a nurse that was not drunk.
Florence got a friend from Parliament, Sidney Herbert, to send her government reports on national health conditions. She thought about becoming a Catholic Sister, and working in a Catholic hospital, but the Cardinal would not let her because she did not believe what Catholics believe. Then she got a job in a Paris hospital staffed with nuns who didn’t drink. Right after she arrived, she got the measles and had to leave.
Once back in England, Florence became the superintendent of the Institution for Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances. Cholera broke out and nurses were afraid to serve, so Florence acted as a nurse herself, and earned great respect.
When the Crimean War started, English military hospitals were a disgrace. Sidney Herbert, secretary of war, authorized purchase of hospital equipment, and appointed Florence “Superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the English General Hospitals in Turkey.”
Florence went to Turkey, bringing ten Catholic sisters, eight Anglican sisters, and some other women with her. When they arrived they found deplorable conditions: moldy food, scarce water, (one pint per person per day for drinking and washing) overcrowding, no medical supplies, operating tables, bedsheets or towels.
Not only did Florence have to deal with grumbling officers and doctors, but her Catholic nurses grumbled that the superior sister should be in charge, while the Anglican nurses complained that Florence favored the Catholics. All the wounded men adored “the Lady of the Lamp,” and what she did to make them comfortable, and that made it all worthwhile for Florence.
Florence wrote lots of legislation to improve hospitals that Sidney Herbert introduced to Parliament. She wrote directly to Queen Victoria a couple times also. When the war ended, the Queen gave Florence a diamond brooch that was inscribed: “To Miss Florence Nightingale as a mark of esteem and gratitude for her devotion toward the queen’s brave soldiers from Victoria R. 1855.”
Although Florence had collapsed from overwork in Crimea, and had come home in a sickly condition, she did not stop working. The military mortality rate was 73 percent in six months just from diseases, because of the battlefield wounds, but the camp and hospital conditions. Florence and Queen Victoria became close friends, and the Queen often invited her to the palace. She liked Florence’s ideas, and although she couldn’t do anything directly, she would invite the secretary of state to the palace with Florence so that he could hear her ideas, and hopefully act on them. When the secretary of state asked for a detailed report, Florence worked on it night and day. Once the 1000 page report was finished, she collapsed, seriously ill. However, she had won her point. The British government acted, and improved military and hospital conditions.
Once recovered, she did many things. She wrote several books on nursing and hospitals; reorganized the War Office; opened a nurses training school; called for legislation that provided separate facilities for children, the insane, and those with contagious diseases; worked with the National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded (later known as the British Red Cross) during the Franco-Prussian War; nursed her dying father, then dying mother, then dying sister; and was the first woman to have bestowed on her the Order of Merit.
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Lagasse, P., & Columbia University. (2000). The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed.). New York; Detroit: Columbia University Press; Sold and distributed by Gale Group.