During her parents’ 3-year honeymoon in Europe, Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820, in Florence, Italy. She was named after her birthplace. Her only sister, Frances Parthenope, or Parthe, had been born a year before, also named after her birthplace (Parthenope is the Greek name for Naples). Florence’s parents were socially and politically connected, due to their wealth and membership in England’s upper class. The family had two homes, although they spent the majority of the year at Embley Park in southern England. Their summer home in Derbyshire, Lea Hurst, was Florence’s favorite of the two. Religion and education were integral parts of the Nightingale home; both would have a monumental impact on Florence’s later life.
There was little opportunity for formal education during this time since universities were generally closed to women. Fortunately, Florence’s father, William Edward Nightingale, was an educated man and desired to share this education with his daughters. Florence studied history, philosophy, ethics, grammar, writing, and mathematics. She learned to speak Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian. These teachings would prepare Florence for her later role in life.
in 1837, while at Embley Park, Florence received her first “call from God.” At that time, she did not fully understand what it meant, but the call drove her to become more active in helping the local poor. In 1849, while traveling in Egypt with friends, Florence received her second call from God. The following year she vowed chastity and obedience to God. After this time in her life, nursing took a priority for Florence. Although she received two marriage proposals, Florence never married; instead she chose to remain true to her calling.
Florence knew her calling was to serve the poor and sick. Her parents refused to allow her to become a nurse as nursing was not considered to be a suitable profession for a well-educated woman. However, during her trip to Europe and Egypt with friends, Florence visited Pastor Theodor Fliedner’s hospital and school for deaconesses at Kaiserswerth, near Dusseldorf. In 1851, the following year, she returned to Kaiserswerth and spent 3 months training as a nurse. This training and her experience working with the sick and poor led her to Harley Street, London, where in 1853 she was offered an unpaid position as the Superintendent of the Establishment for Gentlewomen during Illness.
Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, thus began her career in nursing and hospital reform. She was able to utilize not only her fine education, but also her natural organizational skills to revamp the administration of the Establishment. In 1854, Sidney Herbert, the Minister at War, appointed Florence to oversee the introduction of female nurses into military hospitals during the Crimean War; Herbert selected Florence since he knew her both socially and professionally through her work at Harley Street. In November 1854, Florence Nightingale arrived at the Barrack Hospital in Scutari, Turkey, with 38 nurses. Although the doctors did not want the nurses there, within 10 days the medical and nursing staff were stretched to their limits due to the arrival of fresh casualties.
The British hospital at Scutari was in shambles; there were no beds, no kitchen, little water, and few doctors. Florence was not only a caretaker, but also an administrator, organizing nursing support for the doctors and provisions and facilities for the hospital. During this time, Florence came to be known by the soldiers as a caring and dedicated woman; one who cared no matter what the social status of the person was. It was during this time that Florence Nightingale became known as “the Lady with the Lamp.” After the Crimean War, Nightingale quietly returned home. During the next few years, Florence made Army nursing reform the focal point of her career.
In 1860, at the St. Thomas’s Hospital, the Nightingale School of Nursing opened in London. During this time, Florence was also consulted by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln for advice on Civil War nursing. In 1861, Florence developed severe spinal pain, which would limit some of her later endeavors. However, she did not let poor health keep her from implementing sanitation reform in India, which became the focus of her attentions for the next several years. After India, Florence turned to reform of another kind: nursing reform and women’s progress. In 1893, at the Chicago World’s Fair, Florence’s last paper was read to the Nurse’s Congress. On August 13, 1910, she died in her sleep at age 90. Today, Florence Nightingale is remembered for her pioneering work in public health, hospital administration, sanitary reform, and the use of statistical data for decision-making processes.
SEE ALSO: Blackwell, Elizabeth; Healers, Nurse practitioner, Nursing, Women in the Health Professions (pp. 20-32), Women in Health: Advocates, Reformers, and Pioneers (pp. 40-48)
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- Woodham-Smith, C. (1983). Florence Nightingale, 1820-1910. New York: Atheneum.