Champion of Peace: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale: More than the Lady with a Lamp

We know of Florence Nightingale as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’, and imagine her feminine figure walking among wounded soldiers. Did you know that she was also one of the brightest people of her time and that she was a sharp statistician and organizer as well? This multi-talented lady was also a prolific writer who wrote more than an estimated 14,000 letter during her lifetime.

For more than half of her 90 years on the planet, she was bedridden, but that did not stop the indefatigable lady from passionately working towards medical and nursing reform around the world.

This is Florence Nightingale’s story, how she changed the way the nursing profession was viewed and how she became the founder of modern nursing.

She was born into a rich family on 12th May, 1820 in Florence, Italy, after which she was named. She was from an affluent family who owned three homes. The younger of two daughters, Florence had always been different. She did not enjoy the fancy parties her parents hosted and felt awkward in social situations. As a child, Florence showed an aptitude for Mathematics and History, and an inclination toward service. She used to attend to the ill and poor people of the neighboring village of her home. Florence also had an eye for detail and was very good at organizing and documenting her views.

In Victorian Britain, poor women worked as servants and rich girls like Florence were expected to marry and look after her home. But Florence had other plans. When she was 16, Florence said that God spoke to her and she had the ‘calling’ to serve the people. Later, she decided that she wanted to pursue nursing. This was completely against her parents’ wishes as they considered the nursing profession to be lowly and immodest, unfit for Florence’s social standing, a profession only taken up by poor women. They wanted her to get married but Florence persevered, and visited hospitals in Paris, Rome and London. Florence even turned down a good marriage proposal. After few years, her father gave her permission to train as a nurse and in three years she became the superintendent at a women’s hospital in London.

In 1853, the Crimean War broke out. The British army hospitals were in bad conditions. The Secretary of State at War appointed Florence to take 38 nurses to the military hospital in Turkey. Women were allowed to serve in the army for the first time. When Florence arrived, the hospital was filthy. As soon as she reached, she made sure the floor was clean and that the soldiers were fed properly.

Soon, Florence had many fans in the hospital. A portrait of Florence carrying a lamp and looking after patients appeared in the newspaper. She rose to popularity. The iconic portrait was printed on bags, mats and souvenirs. Her work at the hospital was commended by the public. But Florence was wary about popularity and kept a low profile. After the war, while the whole country was waiting to give her a rousing reception, she quietly returned under a false name.

In 1856, Florence got an invitation to meet Queen Victoria. She wanted to press for a Royal Commission on Army health and was pleased to present her case to the Queen and Prince Albert. Afterwards, the Queen remarked, “What a head! If only we can have her at the War Office.”

The Royal Commission was established, but did not work fast enough for Florence. She undertook the complex task of analyzing the data herself, and discovered a shocking truth: 16,000 of the 18,000 deaths in the war were not due to battle wounds but due to poor sanitation.  Florence documented this data in her now iconic “polar area diagram,” sometimes called the “Nightingale rose diagram” where she put to use her statistical and documenting knowledge. The diagram was very easy to understand and she submitted it to the Commission. Perhaps scared of the outcry that would follow Florence’s findings, the report never saw the light of day for many years.

In light of Florence’s work, medical, sanitary science and statistics departments were established to improve healthcare during war and peacetime as well. A public fund in her name yielded £45,000 and she used the money to establish the Nightingale Training School and Home for Nurses within St. Thomas’ Hospital.

In 1859, she published her most famous books– Notes on Nursing and Notes on Hospitals. This book included ways in which people could take care of ailing family members. Even when her health was ailing, Florence continued to campaign to improve nursing as a respectable career for women and for the improvement of British healthcare systems.

Florence also has very strong connections to India. She was also involved with improving the condition of the British army in India. She believed contaminated water was the root cause of many ailments and made sure the army in India received clean water and proper sanitation.

Florence died at the age of 90. She was the first woman to receive the Order of Merit. She was a commendable woman who used her skills in Mathematics and Communication to convince authorities to establish better healthcare systems, sanitation and personal well-being. Florence was more than just a nurse and well ahead of her times. She challenged the prevalent roles for women in Victorian society and used her knowledge to serve her fellow beings.

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