Florence Nightingale

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Melanie Jones, last updated: 6th June 2011

Born May 1820

Died August 1910

Florence Nightingale was born to a wealthy evangelical family in Florence, Italy in 1820. She was named after her place of birth. It was normal at the time for girls from wealthy families to be educated at home by a governess, usually in the art of home-making, music, reading and writing, basic arithmetic and possibly languages. Nightingale and her sister were educated at home by their father.  This gave Nightingale a more male education than many girls of her time received. Coming from a pious family, Nightingale believed in 1837 that she had received a vision from God and that she was to have a role helping people. In 1844, after some medical observation, she determined to become a nurse, as at the time, medical degrees were, as most other degrees barred from women.

She expressed her desire to her family, but they were extremely disapproving as it was not the done thing for a woman from a wealthy family to work. They were also concerned about her choice of occupation, as at the time, nurses were held in fairly low regard, as they were untrained and usually came from the lower classes. Some nurses were depicted as women of loose morals. Nightingale's parents were more concerned that she find a good husband.

Despite her family's disapproval, Nightingale continued to observe medical practice and continually badgered her father to relent. In 1851, he finally did give her his blessing and she travelled to Germany for 3 months in order to train as a nurse. It was this training that helped her to gain a post as superintendent of a hospital for gentlewomen in Harley Street.

In 1853/4, the Crimean War broke out. Britain and France fought Russia over the lucrative trade routes in the area. The Crimean War was one of the first events to be reported on the spot by journalists, so news travelled back to England fast. Newspapers were filled with the war and the dreadful conditions in the field hospitals there. On a previous trip to Rome, Nightingale had made the acquaintance of Sidney Herbert, a skilled and influential politician. The two became good friends. Herbert asked Nightingale to travel to the Crimea to help in the field hospitals and sanctioned a team of 38 nurses to go with her.

When Nightingale and her nurses arrived in Scutari (in what is now modern Turkey) they found terrible conditions in the field hospital there. There were not enough beds for the patients and men were lying injured in their own filth. Rats infested the wards which were poorly ventilated. The sewers were clogged and a potential source of infection. Dressings on wounds had not been changed and were festering and bed sheets were not changed. It was quite normal for patients to die from infection picked up in the field hospital rather than from the injury that they were being treated for.

Nightingale immediately voiced her opinions to the male doctors in charge, but her nurses were not allowed to treat the patients as Nightingale was seen as far too forthright and opinionated for a woman and it was not deemed suitable for the nurses to tend the sick, as this was the preserve of the male doctors. Nightingale and her nurses were begrudgingly allowed to clean the ward, however, Nightingale found herself funding the operation herself in the face of opposition from the male doctors.  The wards were scrubbed from top to bottom.

As more and more soldiers arrived, doctors could not cope with the number of casualties, and in the end, Nightingale and her team were asked to help. Nightingale issued strict instructions to her nurses. Dressings were to be changed daily, beds were to be changed 3 times per week and nurses were to wear a uniform to make sure they looked professional and recognisable. Nurses were to tend to the patients needs and make sure they were comfortable, even at night. It was patrolling the ward at night carrying a lamp that earned her the nickname "the lady with the lamp."

Nightingales measures to improve hygiene and care for the patients had a big impact on the death rate, which dropped from 42% to 2%. However, it is important to note that at the time Nightingale herself did not necessarily accept that poor hygiene was the cause of all the deaths, and the link between dirt and disease was not finally proven until after 1865 when Louis Pasteur discovered germs.

Nightingale was adored by her patients and her efforts were widely reported in the newspapers back home. She returned to England a celebrity, and whatsmore, so impressed were people by her efforts that a charitable fund was set up. Nightingale was given a lump sum to set up her own nursing school. In 1859/60 Nightingale published her book Notes on Nursing and set up the Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas's hospital, which still exists today as part of Kings College London. Nightingale nurses were trained and gained positions of authority in hospitals all over the world. Nightingale had turned nursing into a respected profession. She was awarded for her work with the Red Cross in 1882 and was the first woman to receive the Order of Merit in 1907.

Having said this, Nightingale was not the only person to make great achievements in the field of nursing, or in the Crimean War. Mary Seacole was a Jamaican nurse who worked for the Red Cross and helped to save a great many lives in the Crimea. Sadly her work is not as well recognised or remembered by history, and this has a great deal to do with attitudes of the time. Firstly, Mary Seacole came from a poor underprivileged background, not a rich one, and secondly, she was black.

In addition to this, Isambard Kingdom Brunel did a great deal to improve the care of the wounded and sick through improving the design of military field hospitals. It is said that his concept gave birth to the modern design of military hospital and did a great deal to improve the comfort, care and prevention of infection among patients.

Florence Nightingale's forthright methods have seen her sometimes identified with the campaign for women's rights. It is true to say that she expressed dislike of the lethargic lives that her mother and sister had led, as they were both well educated women, yet had chosen to fall into the traditional role of the submissive wife and home-maker, however, it has to be said that Nightingale herself was not a supporter of the women's rights movement and openly preferred the company of men, retaining only a handful of close female friends.


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