Florence Nightingale Biography

Florence Nightingale
Print Collector / Getty Images

A nurse and reformer, Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820. She is considered the founder of modern nursing as a profession with training and education behind it. She served as Head Nurse for the British during the Crimean War, where she was also known as the "Lady with the Lamp." She died on August 13, 1910. 

Called to a Mission in Life 

Born to a comfortable family, Florence Nightingale and her older sister Parthenope were educated by governesses and then by their father. She was familiar with the Greek and Latin classical languages and the modern languages of French, German and Italian. She also studied history, grammar, and philosophy. She received tutoring in mathematics when she was twenty, overcoming the objections of her parents.

On February 7, 1837 "Flo" heard, she later said, the voice of God telling her that she had a mission in life. It took her some years of searching to identify that mission. This was the first of four occasions where Florence Nightingale said she heard the voice of God.

By 1844, Nightingale chose a different path than the social life and marriage expected of her by her parents. Again over their objections, she decided to work in nursing which was at the time not quite a respectable profession for women.

She went to Kaiserwerth in Prussia to experience a German training program for girls who would serve as nurses. She then went to work briefly for a Sisters of Mercy hospital near Paris. Her views began to be respected.

Florence Nightingale became the superintendent of London's Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in 1853. It was an unpaid position.

Florence Nightingale in the Crimea

When the Crimean War began, reports came back to England about terrible conditions for wounded and sick soldiers. Florence Nightingale volunteered to go to Turkey and she took a large group of women as nurses at the urging of a family friend, Sidney Herbert, who was then the Secretary of State for War. Thirty-eight women, including 18 Anglican and Roman Catholic sisters, accompanied her to the warfront. She left England on October 21, 1854 and entered the military hospital at Scutari, Turkey on November 5, 1854.

Florence Nightingale headed nursing efforts in English military hospitals in Scutari from 1854 through 1856. She established more sanitary conditions and ordered supplies, beginning with clothing and bedding. She gradually won over the military doctors, at least enough to gain their cooperation. She used significant funds raised by the London Times.

She soon focused more on administration than on actual nursing, but she continued to visit the wards and to send letters back home for the injured and ill soldiers. It was her rule that she be the only woman in the wards at night that earned her the title "The Lady with the Lamp." The mortality rate at the military hospital fell from 60 percent at her arrival to a mere 2 percent six months later.

Florence Nightingale applied her education and interest in mathematics to develop statistical analysis of disease and mortality, inventing the use of the pie chart.

She fought a not-too-willing military bureaucracy and her own illness with Crimean fever to eventually become the general superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the Military Hospitals of the Army on March 16, 1856.

Her Return to England

Florence Nightingale was already a heroine in England when she returned, although she actively worked against the adulation of the public. She helped establish the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army in 1857. She gave evidence to the Commission and compiled her own report which was privately published in 1858. She also became involved in advising on sanitation in India, although she did it from London.

Nightingale was quite ill from 1857 until the end of her life. She lived in London, mostly as an invalid. Her illness was never identified and so could have been organic or psychosomatic. Some have even suspected that her illness was intentional, intended to give her privacy and time to continue her writing. She could choose when to receive visits from people, including her family. 

She founded the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses in London in 1860, using funds contributed by the public to honor her work in the Crimea. She helped inspire the Liverpool system of district nursing in 1861, which later spread widely. Elizabeth Blackwell's plan for opening a Woman's Medical College was developed in consultation with Florence Nightingale. The school opened in 1868 and continued for 31 years. 

Florence Nightingale was completely blind by 1901. The King awarded her the Order of Merit in 1907, making her the first woman to receive that honor. She declined the offer of a national funeral and of burial at Westminster Abbey, requesting that her grave be marked simply.

Florence Nightingale and the Sanitary Commission

A history of the Western Sanitary Commission, written in 1864, begins with this credit to Florence Nightingale's pioneering work:

The first organized attempt to mitigate the horrors of war, to prevent disease and save the lives of those engaged in military service by sanitary measures and a more careful nursing of the sick and wounded, was made by a commission appointed by the British Government during the Crimean war, to inquire into the terrible mortality from disease that attended the British army at Sebastopol, and to apply the needed remedies. It was as a part of this great work that the heroic young Englishwoman, Florence Nightingale, with her army of nurses, went to the Crimea to care for the sick and wounded soldier, to minister in hospitals, and to alleviate suffering and pain, with a self sacrifice and devotion that has made her name a household word, wherever the English language is spoken. In the armies of France the Sisters of Charity had rendered similar services, and even ministered to the wounded on the battle field; but their labors were a work of religious charity and not an organized sanitary movement.

Source of this excerpt: The Western Sanitary Commission: A Sketch. St. Louis: R. P. Studley and Co., 1864