Florence Nightingale was a nurse, as well as an author and statistician. She was born in Italy in 1820 to a wealthy British upper class family, during an era when well-to-do ladies excelled at marrying and having children. As it happens, her father was a believer in educating his daughters, and taught her languages, philosophy and history, as well as mathematics and writing.
She was courted by barons, poets and politicians, but rejected their advances because she felt that marriage would interfere with her ability to practice her calling as a nurse. Some scholars believe that she remained chaste for her entire life; perhaps because she felt a religious calling to her career, or because she lived in the time of Victorian sexual morality.
She announced her desire to enter nursing in 1844, and worked hard to educate herself in the art and science of nursing, much to the dismay of her mother and sister. By 1853, she occupied the post of superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London.
In 1854, her most celebrated contribution to health care came as a result of her work during the Crimean War. She and a staff of 38 nurses arrived in what is now Istanbul to find what she described as horrific conditions. She and her nurses found wounded soldiers being badly cared for by overworked medical staff. Medicines were in short supply, hygiene was being neglected, and mass infections were common, many of them fatal.
During the war, Florence Nightingale gained the nickname "The Lady with the Lamp", deriving from a phrase in a report in The Times:
"She is a ‘ministering angel’ without any exaggeration in these hospitals, and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every poor fellow's face softens with gratitude at the sight of her. When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds."
She prepared many reports on the conditions she found, as well as compiling statistics to support her requests for aid from England. She made extensive use of the newly developed pie chart in order to illustrate her points to civil servants who, she believed, would either not read or not understand a typical statistical report.
"In 1860, the Nightingale Training School and Home for Nurses based at St Thomas' Hospital in London opened with 10 students. It was based on two principles: Firstly, that nurses should have practical training in hospitals specially organized for that purpose. The other was that nurses should live in a home fit to form a moral life and discipline. Due to the foundation of this school Nightingale had achieved the transformation of nursing from its disreputable past into a responsible and respectable career for women."
Nursing's "disreputable past" was based on the fact that in an age of moral propriety, the only women deemed suitable to be exposed to illness and difficult conditions without offending their sensibilities were prostitutes.
And, contrary to popular belief, Florence Nightingale herself did not die of syphillis, but suffered from brucellosis, also called Crimean fever, a highly contagious condition caused by ingestion of unsterilized milk or meat from infected animals or close contact with their secretions. She was intermittently bedridden with this illness from 1858 to her death in 1910, at 90 years of age.
Florence Nightingale's lasting contribution has been her role in founding the modern nursing profession. She set an example of compassion and commitment to patient care.
She received many awards and honors. International Nurses Day is celebrated each year on her birthday, May 12th.
Her image appeared on the £10 banknotes issued by the Bank of England from 1975 until 1994. She was depicted in both a standing portrait, as well as in a field hospital in the Crimea, holding her lamp.
Beginning in 1968, the US Air Force operated a fleet of 20 "Nightingale" aeromedical evacuation aircraft. The last of these planes was retired from service in 2005.
In closing this tribute to Florence Nightingale, I include here the Nightingale Pledge, written in her honor by a committee from Harper Hospital in Detroit in the 1890's, a pledge taken by all new nurses of the time, a modified version of which is still used by some schools of nursing to this day:
I solemnly pledge myself before God and presence of this assembly;
To pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully.
I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug.
I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling.
With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.