Known as “The Lady with the Lamp”, Florence Nightingale is remembered for her contribution to the development of the profession of nursing and the reform of medical practices during the Crimean War and the latter half of the 19th century.

Born on 12th May, 1820 in Florence (it’s from her birthplace that she gets her name), Florence Nightingale was the second daughter of William Edward Nightingale, son of a wealthy Sheffield banker, and Frances Smith.

She had a relatively privileged childhood at her family’s homes of Lea Hurst in Derbyshire and Embley Park in Hampshire (her father was named High Sheriff of the county in 1828) as well as occasional visits to London and received a broad education.

Believing herself to be called by God into His service when in her mid-teens, she chafed at the life set before her. It was a during visit to  convent which holidaying in Rome with family friends that she became convinced she had a mission from God to tend to the sick.

This was only furthered during a subsequent visit to a religious community at Kaiserswerth am Rhein – a training school for nurses – that finally convinced her of the possibility of making nursing a vocation for ladies. Returning to England, Nightingale took up her first official post – as superintendent of the Hospital for Invalid Gentlemen – in 1853.

The Crimean War broke out in March, 1854, and later that year, aware of reports of the suffering sick and wounded English soldiers were enduring, Nightingale offered her services to the War Office following an invitation by the Secretary for War Sidney Herbert.

Charged with authority over all the nurses (her official title was later Superintendent of the Female Nurses in the Hospitals in the East), Nightingale embarked for Crimea on 21st October with 38 nurses (there’s a plaque at 90 Harley Street – site of the hospital from which Nightingale left for the Crimea). She reached Scutari in Turkey on 4th November, the night before the Battle of Inkerman.

Headquartered in Scutari, Nightingale set about organising the military hospitals, improving general hygiene and conditions and supplies of essentials like clothes and other equipment. The wounded men soon recognised her efforts and began calling her ‘The Lady of the Lamp’ – referring to sight of her checking the wards at night.

Visiting hospitals near and in Balaclava in 1855, Nightingale fell ill from “Crimean fever” but recovered and was able to return to Scutari and continue her work. The following March Nighingale returned to Balaclava and continued to work there until the hospitals closed in July. She returned to England and the family home at Lea Hurst the following month.

In September, 1856, Nightingale had an audience with Queen Victoria at Balmoral – she used the occasion to inform the Queen and Prince Albert of the reforms needed in the military hospital system (and subsequently met with the Queen many times). Backed by data she had collected in the Crimea, Nightingale also pushed for a commission into military hospitals – it was commenced in April 1857 and Nightingale’s written evidence was critical to its recommendations.

In 1860, the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses was established at St Thomas’ Hospital in London (it was funded with £50,000 raised through the Nightingale Fund which had been established in 1855). She as unable to take up the post of superintendent due to ill health and other reasons but continued to take an active interest.

Nightingale – who wrote more than 200 books, reports and pamphlets on hospital planning and organisation, including the famous Notes on Nursing (1859), and interestingly is also said to have invented the pie chart – was also involved in establishing the East London Nursing Society (1868), the Workhouse Nursing Association and National Society for Providing Trained Nurses for the Poor (1874) and the Queen’s Jubilee Nursing Institute (1890).

Her accolades included the German Order of the Cross of Merit and the French Gold Medal of Secours aux Blessés Militaires and the badge of honour of the Norwegian Red Cross Society. She was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit and the Freedom of the City of London.

Nightingale died at the age of 90 in South Street London (just off Park Lane – there’s a Blue Plaque marking the spot), on 13th August, 1910. She was buried in the family plot at East Wellow, Hampshire.

There is a memorial to Nightingale as part of the Crimean War Memorial at Waterloo Place and a chapel dedicated to her at Westminster Abbey which is involved in the annual service commemorating her held there on her birthday, International Nurses Day, every year. For more on the service, see our earlier post here.

Well worth a visit is the Florence Nightingale Museum, located within St Thomas’ Hospital.    Highlights include her pet Owl Athena and the Turkish lantern she used in the Crimean War and the museum archives include around 800 letters from Florence Nightingale. For more on the museum, see www.florence-nightingale.co.uk.

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