It seems particularly fitting to feature Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) on Remembrance Day. She was the woman who pioneered modern nursing methods and brought about dramatic improvements to military and subsequently, civilian hospitals. She established nursing as a profession.
Less known is her uncommon talent as a statistician, an important skill which helped her in her lifelong quest, one she believed God sent her on. She dedicated herself to this cause despite strong family opposition. She never married.
Florence came from a wealthy and extremely well-connected Victorian family. She was the younger of 2 daughters of William and Fanny Nightingale. Both Parthenope (Greek name for Naples) and Florence were named after their birthplaces - their parents were on an extended honeymoon tour of Italy at the time.
Her family were Unitarians. These liberal Christians believe in reason, rational thought and progress, accepting the co-existence of religion and science. Many of her relations held progressive views for the time - her maternal grandfather was the abolitionist, William Smith and some of her aunts had feminist leanings.
Florence did not go to the Crimea to attend to injured British soldiers until she was in her thirties. Yet, her early life and unusual upbringing made her the woman she was to become and in many ways prepared her for the tribulations she was to face.
Her adoring older sister once wrote about the time when Florence came down with whooping cough - all 13 of her dolls apparently had tiny red flannel scarves around their necks too! When she was 12, she took over the care of her little baby cousin when his nurse fell ill while his mother and her mother was away. At 17, a flu epidemic laid low everyone in the household except for her, the cook and a cousin so she cared for the sick.
Florence thus became the one the extended family turned to if anyone needed help with nursing. She also began to take care of sick villagers near her homes she knew regardless of their station in life. They adored her. Her keen awareness of their needs and her own growing knowledge of practical nursing care were all key to her success then and much later on during the war.
Most unusually for a Victorian father, William then started teaching his daughters himself. He was a rare man of his day - most believed women need not be educated - but not he. An intellectual, William taught them languages, arts, science and mathematics. He cultivated their intellect and the girls thrived under his tutelage, particularly Florence who was exceptionally bright. The girls may have been denied entrance to universities at the time by virtue of their gender but he made up for this lack with his tutoring. The greatest gift her father ever gave Florence was her intellectual self-confidence.
|Embley Park, now a school|
Deep down she felt she could not accept what she saw as staid and bland marital lives in a straitlaced society. She could never understand why her father was content to stay idle when he could, as a man, do so much more with his privileged life. The quiet and inconsequential lives of upper class women of her time trapped in their gilded cages as it were, definitely did not appeal. In short, she craved "a profession, a trade, a necessary occupation, something to fill and employ all my faculties."
But it was because they loved her very much that they feared for her health and welfare, which as it turned out later, was justified. They could not understand why a lady of Florence's rank would risk her health to care for poor sick people. Rich people in those days employed private carers but the vast majority of the population had to rely on public hospitals which were terrible places to be in.
Most "nurses" then were poverty stricken women hired to watch patients and keep them clean. They were often drunk and sometimes known to have sexual relations with doctors, male dressers (of wounds) and even patients. Fanny actually thought at one point Florence might have had an illicit liasion with some "low vulgar surgeon" to account for her daughter's desire to work in such hospitals.
She was able to take up the post because her father finally gave her an income and thus her independence. She turned a rat infested building into a clean and efficiently run place with top medical care. She also helped local hospitals manage the huge influx of patients when cholera broke out. Eventually, even her mother and sister rallied by her side and began to help.
|Florence Nightingale in her 30's|
The Crimean war (1853-1856) was fought by Britain, France and Turkey against Russia which had threatened Turkey. The British army was incredibly ill prepared for the war. Poorly led and badly supplied, they were totally negligent in the provision of medical care. The whole campaign soon became an unmitigated disaster.
|Map of Crimea with battle sites marked (Source)|
|Injured arriving at Balaklava|
|One of the wards at Scutari Hospital where Florence worked|
|From Illustrated London News (1855)|
The death rates started to drop with her team's efforts but it wasn't until the Sanitary Commission suggested by Lord Shaftesbury came, did they really fall rapidly. The team cleared sewers, removed animal carcasses from water supplies and improved ventilation some 6 months after the nurses arrived.
One of her suggestions included proper operating rooms for the future. There were actually none while she was in the Crimea. Doctors performed amputations right on the hospital beds. All the nurses could do was to put up curtains so the other men were spared the sight.
Florence continued to suffer terribly for more than 20 years from an acute form of brucellosis (also sometimes known as Crimean fever) she picked up during the war. She most likely caught the bacterial infection from drinking contaminated milk. It sometimes caused excruciating pain to her joints and back, made her breathless, fatigued and she often felt "like the top of my head was blown off."
|Florence Nightingale Charm/Pendant by Cats Brass on Etsy|
Her legacy was the establishment of modern professional nursing. She was instrumental in the creation of the first nursing school, now called the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery. An outpouring of public donations helped fund the school. Nurses today still take the Nightingale pledge, named in her honor.
She was the first woman to become a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a remarkable feat at a time when women were barred from learned societies. Florence believed, "statistics were a measure of God's purpose."
|Lady with the Lamp Earrings by Cats Brass|
On a personal level though, she did not welcome the public's adoration of her. However, she did agree to sit for a sculptor only because it was a commission from the British army. Non-commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers had raised money for it. The sculptor, Sir John Steell, said many of the soldiers, widows, orphans and sweethearts who came to his studio to see the bust did so with tears of gratitude.
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