Lady with the Lamp: Nightingale Lights the Way for Modern Nursing

In observance of National Nurses Day on May 6, 2018, it is only fitting to acknowledge history’s nursing icon with lantern in hand. Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy on May 12, 1820. During the Crimean War, she and a team of nurses improved the unsanitary conditions at a British base hospital, reducing the death count by two-thirds. Her writings sparked worldwide health care reform. In 1860 she established St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses. She died August 13, 1910, in London.

(Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820, in Florence, Italy. Florence’s father was William Shore Nightingale, a wealthy British landowner who had inherited two estates, providing her with a classical education and studies in German, French and Italian. Nightingale was active in philanthropy at a very young age, ministering to the ill and poor people in the village neighboring her family’s estate. By the time she was 16, she believed her call to nursing was her divine purpose. Forbidden to pursue such a calling in Victorian Era, she refused both marriage nuptials and her parents discipline. In 1844, Nightingale enrolled as a nursing student at the Lutheran Hospital of Pastor Fliedner in Kaiserwerth, Germany. In her early career in London, Nightingale grappled with a cholera outbreak and unsanitary conditions conducive to the rapid spread of the disease.

In October of 1853, the Crimean War broke out. The British Empire was at war against the Russian Empire for control of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands of British soldiers were sent to the Black Sea, where supplies quickly dwindled. By 1854,18,000 soldiers had been admitted into military hospitals. Unstaffed and inhumane conditions led to Nightingale’s receipts of a letter in 1854 from Secretary of War Sidney Herbert, asking her to organize a corps of nurses to tend to the sick and fallen soldiers in the Crimea. She assembled a team of 34 nurses and sailed to Crimea. Nothing could have prepared Nightingale for lay ahead. The hospital sat on top of a large cesspool, which contaminated the water and the hospital building itself. Patients lay on in their own excrement on stretchers strewn throughout the hallways. Rodents and bugs scurried past them. The most basic supplies, such as bandages and soap, grew increasingly scarce as the number of ill and wounded steadily increased. Even water needed to be rationed. More soldiers were dying from infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera than from injuries incurred in battle.

The no-nonsense Nightingale quickly procured hundreds of scrub brushes and asked the least infirm patients to scrub the inside of the hospital from floor to ceiling. In the evenings she moved through the dark hallways with a lantern ministering to patient after patient. The soldiers, who were both moved and comforted by her endless supply of compassion, took to calling her “the Lady with the Lamp.”

Additionally, Nightingale created patient services that contributed to improving the quality of their hospital stay, including the “invalid’s kitchen” where appealing food for patients with special dietary requirements was cooked, a laundry so that patients would have clean linens, and a classroom and a library for patients’ intellectual stimulation and entertainment. Based on her observations in the Crimea, Nightingale wrote Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army, an 830-page report analyzing her experience and proposing reforms for other military hospitals operating under poor conditions. The book would spark a total restructuring of the War Office’s administrative department, including the establishment of a Royal Commission for the Health of the Army in 1857.

Once the Crimean conflict was resolved, she returned to her childhood home at Lea Hurst. The Queen rewarded Nightingale’s work by presenting her with an engraved brooch that came to be known as the “Nightingale Jewel” and by granting her a prize of $250,000 from the British government. Using the money to further her cause, she funded the establishment of St. Thomas’ Hospital in 1860, and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses. Nightingale’s example led women of all classes to an honorable vocation.
By the time she was 38 years old, she was homebound and bedridden due to Crimean fever and would remain there for life remainder of her life. Nightingale continued her work from her bed as an authority and advocate of health care reform and was consulted during the US Civil War on how to best manage field hospitals, and on sanitation issues in India for both military and civilians.
In 1908, at the age of 88, she was conferred the merit of honor by King Edward. On August 13, 1910, she died at her home in London and was laid to rest in a family plot at Westminster Abbey.

The Florence Nightingale Museum, which sits at the site of the original Nightingale Training School for Nurses, houses more than 2,000 artifacts commemorating the life and career. Nightingale is revered as the pioneer of modern nursing.

Reference material taken in part from the following sources: The History Channel and

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