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The Lady with the Lamp

By Chad Hansen

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.

- ‘The Life of Florence Nightingale’

Florence Nightingale was a celebrated British nurse and a pioneer in sanitation and social reform for the British military. Nightingale came to prominence during the Crimean War, when she cared for injured soldiers. By the end of her life, Florence Nightingale accrued such honors as the Royal Red Cross and the Honorary Freedom of the City of London. Nightingale was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit and credited for transforming nursing in to a professional career. Nightingale was also a successful writer throughout her life, publishing numerous works that contributed to the improvement of nursing and health care in the nineteenth century. Florence was also a Miasmist, a group of people, mainly from the elite, who believed that diseases were caused by bad air.

Florence Nightingale was born on 12 May 1820 into an upper class British family at the Villa Colombia in Florence, Italy. Florence and her father William were very close, and he took it upon himself to educate her, teaching her Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, history, philosophy and mathematics. In 1837, after what she claimed was a call from God, Nightingale announced that she would enter nursing in 1844. Given her high social standing, this was highly unusual and angered her family immensely. At the age of 31, Florence moved to Kaiserwerth, Germany to study nursing at the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses for three months. Two years later, in 1853, she was appointed resident lady superintendent of a hospital for invalid women in Harley Street, London. Although several men courted Nightingale, she never married for fear that it would interfere with her nursing career. She is thought to have remained chaste throughout her life given the religious disposition of her profession.

Florence Nightingale’s greatest contribution came during the Crimean War. After hearing disheartening reports of the mistreatment of the wounded soldiers and the outbreaks of cholera and malaria, Nightingale and 38 nurses traveled across the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire. Six months after Nightingale arrived, death rates continued to rise. Florence, like most others during this period, believed in the miasma theory, the idea that disease such as cholera and typhoid fever could be transmitted through foul air. Even after it was proven in 1891 that cholera was a product of contaminated water, Florence remained firm in this belief until her death. In 1855, a Sanitary Commission was sent out to flush the overwhelmed sewers and improve ventilation. Following the Commission, death rates were sharply reduced. Florence Nightingale was greatly influenced by the notion that poor hygiene was responsible for so many deaths, and from this point advocated sanitation conditions as of great importance. Florence considered it very important to make hospitals sanitary and fresh-smelling. It was stated in ‘Notes on Nursing for the Labouring Classes’ (1860), that Nightingale would “Keep the air the patient breathes as pure as the external air.”

In 1855, the Nightingale Fund was established to create a training school for nurses. In 1860, Florence used this money, amounting to 50,000 pounds, to establish the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses at St, Thomas’s Hospital. This institution provided an environment where women could receive practical training, as well as create a home where nurses in training could practice discipline. The Nightingale School and Home for Nurses transformed nursing from an unwholesome and lowly job, to a reputable and professional career. Florence Nightingale was involved in establishing the East London Nursing Society (1868), the Workhouse Nursing Association and National Society for providing Trained Nurses for the Poor (1874) and the Queen’s Jubilee Nursing Institute (1890).

In the remaining years of her life, Florence Nightingale retired and lived in her home on South Street, Park Lane. Ironically, Florence’s health deteriorated in the last fifteen years of her live, resulting in the need for a full time nurse. Florence Nightingale died in 1910 at the age of 90. Florence’s family was offered a place at Westminster Abby for burial, however they declined. Nightingale is buried in the graveyard at St. Margaret Church in East Wellow, Hamshire. Florence Nightingale is one of the most famous women of the nineteenth century. Throughout her lifetime she published over 200 books, pamphlets and reports that remain a source for nursing to this day.