International Nurses Day, 12 May 2020, was celebrated exclusively online through social media and web platforms, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This date is significant because it is also the 200-year anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, who has been dubbed as the ‘mother of modern nursing’ and ‘the lady with the lamp.’
The celebrations also honoured the work of nurses in every country affected by the virus across the globe, without whom many nations would have been completely overwhelmed as a result of the crisis.
Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy, (yes, her parents named her after her birthplace) in 1820. Her parents returned to England and it was expected as she grew up that she would, as society dictated, simply get married into another wealthy family and raise her own family.
She and her sister, Parthenope, were bright, but in the social climate it was not expected that girls should go to school. They outgrew the governesses that were sent to teach them, so her father took on the role of teacher and homeschooled them. Nightingale enjoyed the rigour of mathematics and applied her analytical mind to a variety of problems. She was adept at assimilating and organising information.
In 1837, she heard a voice: “God spoke to me and called me to His Service. What form this service was to take the voice did not say.” By the time she was 30, Nightingale had decided to become a nurse, a decision that shocked her parents because nursing was only something the poor women did. She refused an offer of marriage and continued on the path of nursing.
Throughout her life she sought a deeper experience of God, something beyond the socially expected rituals she had grown up with. She called this Mysticism. “For what is Mysticism?” she wrote once. “Is it not the attempt to draw near to God, not by rites or ceremonies but by inward disposition? Is it not merely a hard word for ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within’?”
In becoming a nurse at age 30, Nightingale noted that this was the age when Jesus began his ministry. She clearly saw her work as a way of following her Lord. And what better way to commit one’s life to the Healer than by devoting oneself to healing? She once told an assembly of nurses, “Christ is the author of our profession.” Nursing was a means of doing something toward lifting the load of suffering from the helpless and miserable and Nightingale believed this was what God was calling her to do. To that end she travelled around Europe, looking at different hospitals, and studying nursing in Germany.
In 1853 she became the superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London. Then came the life changing event: the Crimean War broke out in 1854. In November 1854, The Secretary of War, Sidney Herbert, sent Nightingale and 38 nurses to Scutari (on the edge of the Black Sea near Istanbul) to the British hospital to help soldiers fighting in the war. Doctors there were initially resistant to working with women, but eventually were grateful for the help because of the volume of injuries.
From 1854 to 1856, Nightingale served as the Superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the English General Hospitals in Turkey.
Importance of Hygiene
Bringing her observational and analytical skills to bear, Nightingale realised that the significant death rates in hospital were not just due to injuries inflicted in the war. Poor hygiene and the prevalence of diseases such as typhus and cholera, as well as diarrhoea, dysentery and scurvy, accounted for many of the deaths. This was exacerbated by the blocked drains and rats that were scurrying around the wards.
Nightingale cleaned the place up, literally. She also ensured that the men were well fed and had clean linen and bandages. The nurses brought supplies, nutritious food, cleanliness, and sanitation to the military hospital. They also provided individual care and support. Nightingale was known for carrying a lamp and checking on the soldiers at night, so they gave her the nickname “the Lady with the Lamp.”
The introduction of sanitary improvements in the hospital significantly reduced the death rate from 60% initially, to 42% by February 1855, to 2% a few months later.
Nightingale was also instrumental in changing legislation for hospitalised men. For example, the old law mandated that these men, since they were no longer in danger of being shot, have their pay cut. However, their wounds often handicapped them for life, so Nightingale opposed the pay cuts and wrote directly to Queen Victoria to explain why. The men’s pay was restored. This was just one example where her friend Sidney Herbert introduced legislation in Parliament at her instigation.
On her return to England, Nightingale continued to work on improving the conditions of hospitals. In 1856, on the basis of data compiled by Nightingale, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert formed a Royal Commission to improve the health of the British Army. Nightingale was also elected as the first woman member of the Royal Statistical Society, due to her skill with data and analysis.
In 1883 she received the Royal Red Cross from Queen Victoria and in 1907 She was awarded the Order of Merit by King Edward VII for her services.
In 1859, Nightingale helped to set up the Army Medical College in Chatham and she also published a book called Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it is Not. Her book gives advice on good patient care and safe hospital environments. In 1860, the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’ Hospital was officially opened. She wrote over 150 books, pamphlets and reports on safe nursing practice.
As a result of her efforts during the war, a fund was set up for Nightingale to continue teaching nurses in England. In her later years, Nightingale was often bedridden from illness. However, she continued to advocate for safe nursing practices until her death.
During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, two of the strategies for stemming the rate of infection can be attributed to Nightingale: the use of data and statistics to interpret the spread of infection, and sanitation methods, as simple as washing hands and isolation. Nightingale also put a human face on caring for the sick – her compassion embodies the ethos of nursing.
Two years after her death, the International Committee of the Red Cross created the Florence Nightingale Medal, that is given to excellent nurses every two years. Also, International Nurses Day has been celebrated on her birthday since 1965. In May of 2010, the Florence Nightingale Museum at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London reopened to honor the hundredth anniversary of Nightingale’s death.
When the war ended, she was the sole hero to emerge. As one biographer said, “She had the country at her feet.” The queen presented Nightingale with a diamond brooch. The inscription on the reverse side read, “To Miss Florence Nightingale as a mark of esteem and gratitude for her devotion toward the queen’s brave soldiers from Victoria R. 1855.”
When the war ended, Jean Henri Dunant said, “Though I’m known as the founder of the Red Cross … it is to an Englishwoman that all the honor is due. What inspired me … was the work of Florence Nightingale.”
Written by Aira Chilcott for Did You Know Education
Graham McDonald is the President of Diduno