Today we celebrate the life of Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing who was born in Florence, Italy, on May 12, 1820.
Her wealthy family did not support her choice of career. One doctor told her father, “Some of the nursing is done by drunken prostitutes who were given the option in the police courts of going to prison or to the hospital.” But she defied all odds by not only becoming successful in nursing but to revolutionize the field entirely.
During the Crimean War, she and a team of nurses improved the unsanitary conditions at a hospital on a British base in Scutari, Turkey, greatly reducing the number of deaths. She described in her journal the horrific conditions that greeted them. “We have four miles of beds eighteen inches apart. We are steeped to our necks in blood. Eleven men died in the night simply from exhaustion, which, humanly speaking, might have been stopped could I have laid my hand on such nourishment as I knew they ought to have had.” She and her nurses soon set up a diet kitchen, purchasing food for the soldiers from her own funds.
Next, she tackled the hospital laundry. The staff only washed six shirts per month for the thousand or more wounded because of the high rate of theft. Again, using her own money, she rented a nearby house, had boilers installed, and hired the soldiers’ wives to wash clothes. Then she purchased 10,000 shirts for the soldiers since they literally only had the shirts on their backs when they landed in the Crimea, thinking the war would only last one day. Florence made sure they burned old vermin-infested blood-soaked clothing.
Often she worked for 20 hours without stopping for a rest. As she made her midnight rounds with her lantern, the soldiers saluted her in appreciation for all her care. Longfellow immortalized this nightly tour in his well-known poem about “the lady with the lamp.”
Lo! In that hour of misery, A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering gloom, And flit from room to room.
And slow, as in a dream of bliss, The speechless sufferer turns to kiss
Her shadow as it falls Upon the darkening walls.
After the war ended in 1856, she returned to a heroine’s welcome in England, much to her surprise. She insisted on compiling statistics to present to the government to improve the conditions for their soldiers. Seven times more men died from disease than from battle wounds. She won her battle with Parliament, and in 1858 they provided the funds to ventilate and heat the barracks, introduce a sewer system, remodel the kitchens, and use gas lights rather than candles. To safeguard the soldiers’ moral health, she built reading and recreational rooms, coffee shops, and lecture halls.
In 1859, she published her Notes on Nursing which became an international bestseller. Her Notes on Nursing were used to guide the nurses during the Civil War in the United States which began in 1860.
In appreciation for all the lives of the wounded British soldiers she and her team of nurses treated, Queen Victoria awarded her $250,000. Florence used this money to establish St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in London in 1860. The fifteen students admitted to the school promised they would serve in public hospitals and infirmaries.
While an invalid for the last 40 years of her life, she wrote and published a number of papers. She reflected, “Wretch that I was not to see that God took from me all human help in order to compel me to lean on Him alone. O Lord, even now I am trying to snatch the management of Thy world out of Thy hands… Too little have I looked for something better and higher than Thy work, the work of Supreme Wisdom… O God, to Thy glory, not to mine, whatever happens, may be all my thought.”
“Whether, therefore, ye eat, or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God…not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (I Corinthians 10:31, 33 KJV).
The “Lady with the lamp” died in London, on Aug. 13, 1910, and was buried in a simple family grave as she requested.
(All quotes are taken from “Florence Nightingale” by Basil Miller, Bethany House Publishers, 1947, 1975)