National Nursing Week – The ‘Lady of the Lamp’ who revolutionized nursing

Tomorrow, May 12th, marks the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale, founder of nursing, and today, May 11th, is the first day of ‘National Nursing Week’. Since 1965, International Nurses Day has been celebrated on her birthday (12 May) each year.

Named after the city of her birth, Florence Italy, she was born into a wealthy aristocratic British family and was raised in England.

In a time when women of Nightingale’s class did not attend universities and did not pursue professional careers and whose  purpose in life was to marry and bear children, Nightingale was fortunate. Her father believed women should be educated, and he personally taught her Italian, Latin, Greek, philosophy, history and, most unusual of all for women of the time, writing and mathematics.

When she decided to go into nursing in 1844, her mother and sister were extremely upset with her, but she had made her decision.

Nightingale worked hard to educate herself in the art and science of nursing, in the face of opposition from her family and the restrictive social code for wealthy young English women who moved in the echelons of upper British society.

On 21 October 1854, she and the staff of 38 women volunteer nurses that she trained, including her aunt Mai Smith and 15 Catholic nuns, were sent to the Ottoman Empire during the Crimean War. They sailed the 295 nautical miles (546 km; 339 mi) across the Black Sea from Balaklava in the Crimea to the main British camp where they found that medicines were in short supply, hygiene was almost non-existent, and mass infections were common, many of them fatal.

During the Crimean War, Nightingale organized care for wounded soldiers and gave nursing a favourable reputation and became a model of Victorian culture as “The Lady with the Lamp”, making rounds of wounded soldiers at night.

It was said that Nightingale reduced the death rate from 42% to 2% by making improvements in hygiene herself, such as implementing hand-washing and other hygiene practices in the war hospital in which she worked.

Nightingale also trained at the Institute for Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth in Dusseldorf, Germany.  Between 31 July to 13 August 1850, she made her first visit to the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth. The institute had been founded for the care of the destitute in 1833 and had grown into a training school for women teachers and nurses.

Nightingale laid the foundation of professional nursing with the establishment of the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London in 1860. It was the first secular nursing school in the world, and is now part of King’s College London.

One of Nightingale’s most important achievements was the introduction of trained nurses into the workhouse system in Britain from the 1860s onwards. This meant that sick paupers were no longer being cared for by other, able-bodied paupers, but by properly trained nursing staff. In the first half of the 19th century, nurses were usually former servants or widows who could find no other job and therefore were forced to earn their living doing this work. She set an example of compassion, commitment to patient care and diligent and thoughtful hospital administration.

Statue of Nightingale by Arthur George Walker in Waterloo Place, London

She excelled in mathematics from an early age and she later became a pioneer in the visual presentation of information and statistical data using methods such as the pie chart, which had first been developed by William Playfair in 1801. While taken for granted now, it was at the time a relatively novel method of presenting data.  In 1859, Nightingale was also elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and, in 1874, she became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.

Throughout her life, her achievements were many.  In 1883, Nightingale became the first recipient of the Royal Red Cross; in 1904, she was appointed a Lady of Grace of the Order of St John (LGStJ); in 1907, she became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit.

Nightingale also wrote some 200 books, pamphlets and articles throughout her life, including an 829 page, three-volume work, which Nightingale had printed privately in 1860, but which until recently was never published in its entirety. An effort to correct this was made with a 2008 publication by Wilfrid Laurier University of Waterloo, as volume 11 of a 16 volume project, the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale.

Although devout in her Christian faith, she was a strong opponent of discrimination both against Christians of different denominations and against those of non-Christian religions. She was also critical of the 19th century church’s oppression of the poor. and believed in feminism.

There are many hospitals and hospital wards throughout the world that bear her name and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of temporary NHS Nightingale Hospitals have been set up in readiness for an expected rise in the number of patients needing critical care. The first was housed in the ExCeL London and several others followed across England.

Around the world today, nurses are on the front-line when it comes to the pandemic.  They work tirelessly in the face of a virus which could impact them on a personal level.  This week especially, they should be recognized for the selfless work that they do and tomorrow, on the birthday of Florence Nightingale, put a light in your window to recognize the nurses and all front-line responders.