Close your eyes and imagine you’re a soldier in a war. But you’re not on the battlefield. Instead, you’re lying in bed recovering from injuries you received in battle. The room is pitch black and it’s been a long night, and you are very uncomfortable. You are sad and not feeling well. You miss your family back at home and wish you were not sick. But suddenly, you hear a door open and you turn and look down the hall. There’s light from a lamp and it’s moving toward you. You smile because you know who it is. A woman, a nurse, stops by you and puts her hand on your shoulder. “How are you feeling,” she asks. “Can I get you anything?” She gives you a drink of water. “Let me know if you need anything else,” she says and then walks away to attend to another soldier. You felt lonely and sad but now you feel much better, thanks to the woman who would become one of the most famous nurses of all time, the Lady with the Lamp, Florence Nightingale.
Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820. Her parents were English, which means from England, but at the time they were living in the city of Florence, Italy. And this is where she got her name, Florence! The Nightingales were a very wealthy family. Her father was a London banker. Florence and her sister had a very easy, privileged life. Growing up they got to travel all over Europe as a family. Imagine how interesting that would have been! After their travels, they settled in their home country, England. There they had two homes, a summer house in Derbyshire and a winter house in Hampshire. With the homes came servants who took care of them and all of the housekeeping. Like I said, a pretty easy life for the girls and the parents who had plenty of money to live in comfort.
During the 1800s most girls didn’t get a great education. But William Nightingale wanted the best for his daughters, so he took a special interest in their learning and taught them various subjects like history, geography, and literature. Florence was a very gifted child and soaked up everything her father taught her. Even at a young age with lots of practice, she could speak in several languages: French, German, Latin, Greek, Italian, and Latin.
In the time Florence lived, called the Victorian era, women from wealthy families were expected to only handle housework (with the servants doing most of the work) and host guests. They weren’t supposed to look for jobs or earn money. Florence saw this but wanted something different. She wanted to work for herself and earn money for herself. She wasn’t satisfied with the way the world was. She wanted to find her purpose in life and believed there was more for her than simply running the home and taking care of guests. At an early age, she decided her calling in life would be to help others, to ease their suffering. She loved taking care of sick pets and servants. Being a nurse seemed like a natural fit for desire to help others.
So Florence mustered up the courage and went to her parents to tell them she wanted to be a nurse. They were very upset and refused to let her do it. They told her she wasn’t allowed to go to nursing school. In their minds, this was very inappropriate for a woman of her wealth and status. Like I said, it was a very different time and Florence was going against what was normal in her day.
But do you think Florence just went along with it? Nope. She was determined to become a nurse so she could help others. Finally, after a lot of persuasion, her father gave in and she packed up her bags and moved to Germany to go to nursing school. The school was called the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses. There she learned all the important skills to take care of other’s medical needs. Florence was a fast learner, so she made quick progress and after moving back to England soon became the head of a hospital in London.
In 1854, a war broke out between the countries of Turkey and Russia. Did you know there was a country called Turkey? It’s a big country on the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and the Middle East. The war became Russia and Turkey later became known as the Crimean War. Since England, Russia and France were allies, British soldiers were sent to fight in the war. To help sick and injured soldiers, a hospital was set up in Scutari, Turkey. And sadly due to the war, many injured soldiers ended up in the hospital. But the soldiers weren’t being taken care of properly. And this means soldiers who didn’t receive the proper care, often did not survive. Leaders at the time wondered what to do and someone suggested just the person to help – Nurse extraordinaire, Florence Nightingale! Florence was a friend of the Minister of War’s wife and he requested her to accept the job.
So, Florence, not being one to waste time, quickly went to work assembling a team of 34 nurses and all of the supplies they’d need to help the soldiers waiting in the hospital far away in Turkey.
When Florence and the nurses arrived in Turkey, they were shocked at what they saw! The hospital was so overcrowded that soldiers had to sleep on the floor. And it was very unhygienic, which means it was unclean and it’s very important that a hospital is kept clean because if not germs can flourish and make sick soldiers even sicker. There were puddles of drain water everywhere — and worst of all rats! It was no wonder all of the soldiers were getting infected!
Florence knew if the soldiers were to get better, the hospital would have to change. Right away. With money from England, she quickly improved the conditions. She ordered new equipment, cleaned up the rooms, and even set up the kitchen to serve better quality food. All of her training as a nurse was being put to good use to save the lives of the soldiers and improve their quality of care. She was a true nurse who properly cared for her suffering patients.
You’d think with all of this busyness, Florence would just want to rest at night. But at all hours, Florence kept an eye on her patients. At night she used to make her rounds, checking on each and every soldier. She used a lamp to light her way and the soldiers named her “the Lady with the Lamp”. Imagine if you were a soldier suffering and could not sleep at night. Imagine what it would feel like to see that lamplight coming down the hall and know that someone cared for you and was checking in on you. This is the kind of care Florence gave! She also wrote letters to the home of the soldiers who were unable to do it themselves and found ways to entertain them.
Thanks to Florence and other nurse’s hard work and selfless service, the conditions in the hospital barracks started to change. The mortality rate, which is the number of deaths in a certain period of time, decreased by two percent. This means that more and more soldiers were starting to survive their injuries!
This was such exciting news that papers back in London started writing articles about Florence Nightingale. People started calling her a heroine. Even the Queen of England wrote her a thank you letter!
After the Crimean War ended, Florence’s work did not. After seeing how poor the conditions were in Turkey, she set out on her new mission to make hospitals better across the empire. She met up with important figures such as Queen Victoria to discuss her ideas. Eventually, the army started training doctors and nurses to take care of soldiers with the care and concern Florence would give them.
To honor her service, the government decided to create a fund as a token of their appreciation and gratitude. They called it the Nightingale Fund and through it a big sum of money was raised and gifted to Florence to use however she pleased. In 1860, Florence set up her own institute called The Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.
The school gave hope to women who wanted to work and service and earn their own living. It made training and schooling more normal for women in their society. It was an excellent school, one of the first to be developed based on accurate scientific methods. In fact, it was so advanced that most of the techniques that Florence developed in the school are still in practice today! And to this day, she is considered one of the founders of nursing training.
Florence believed that nursing starts from the home. With this, she set up various training camps in smaller neighborhoods so the women of lower class could learn from her. This improved the level of health in poor families immensely. Not only was Florence a full-time professional nurse, she also published many books on nursing and healthcare. Her most famous writing is the Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not which is the best guidebook for household nursing. It has detailed step-by-step procedures on how to best tend to a patient at home.
To honor her service, there are plaques and statues of Florence Nightingale all around the globe. Three statues of Florence are in Derby, England alongside numerous plaques. From Los Angeles in the USA to Andhra Pradesh in India and in Kawanishi in Japan, various countries have put up statues in respect of The Lady with the Lamp.
Spend some time thinking about how Florence lived her life and the change for good she made in the lives of others. Do you like caring for others? What does it feel like after you help someone? It feels good inside, doesn’t it? Florence saw suffering around her and did whatever she could to help. For you, this might start small by helping a sibling when they are trying to tie their shoe or make their breakfast. Or it might mean helping your parents when they are sick — remember how much they helped you when you were sick! In fact, just the other day I wasn’t feeling well and my kids brought me some food and water and it made me feel much better. Next time you’re given the opportunity to serve others, remember Florence Nightingale and the change she made in the lives of others one individual at a time!