Florence Nightingale was born on 12 May 1820 in Florence, Italy. Her parents, William Edward and Frances Nightingale, returned to England in 1838. The wealthy family lived at a time of profound social change, in an environment open to liberal and reformist ideas.
Parthenope and Florence were educated at home by their father, himself a graduate of Cambridge University. He had modern ideas about the improvement of society and the education of women. Florence is a studious child and at the age of 17 she has, as one of her diaries indicates, a mystical experience, a kind of deep calling that strengthens her conviction that she is not destined to lead an ordinary life; which at that time meant a good marriage. Between the ages of 20 and 30, she had increasingly frequent conflicts with her parents who wanted to marry her off, but she stood her ground and managed to maintain her independence.
Florence visited sick houses in local villages and began to study hospital and health care. Her parents objected to her desire to become a nurse, an inappropriate profession for an educated woman at the time. Caring for the sick in hospitals was the preserve of poor and uneducated women.
The young woman persevered and spent three months training as a nurse in Kaiserswerth, Germany, which enabled her to take up an offer of employment in 1853 as an overseer at the Establishment for Gentlewomen during their illness.
During the Crimean War, the Minister of War commissioned Florence Nightingale to organise the introduction of female nurses into the military hospitals in Turkey. On 4 November 1854, Florence Nightingale, accompanied by 38 other nurses, arrived at the Barrack Hospital in Scutari, a military hospital near Constantinople. Not only did she have to face appalling hygienic conditions, but she also had to fight the animosity of doctors who saw her as an intruder. However, with her extraordinary organisational skills, entrepreneurial spirit and unwavering determination, she managed to improve the hospital's operations and gain acceptance for her fellow nurses. The introduction of women nurses in military hospitals was eventually successful. Florence Nightingale became known as "The Lady with the Lamp" because that is how she visited the wounded at night to comfort them.
When Florence Nightingale returned from the Crimean War, she was greeted as a hero and offered substantial funds to continue her hospital reform. For her contribution to army and comparative hospital statistics in 1860, Florence Nightingale became the first woman to be elected a member of the Statistical Society. In 1865, she moved to London for the rest of her life. In 1869 she founded the Women's Medical College with Elizabeth Blackwell.
In 1896, the nurse was very ill and could no longer move about by herself. Although bedridden for many years, she campaigned tirelessly to improve health standards, publishing 200 books, reports and pamphlets. In recognition of her hard work, in 1883 Queen Victoria awarded her the Royal Red Cross. As she grew older, she received many honours, becoming the first woman to receive the Order of Merit in 1907.
Florence Nightingale died at home, aged 90, on 13 August 1910. Her far-sighted reforms influenced the nature of modern health care and her writings continue to be a source for nurses, health managers and planners.
In doing so, she opened up a new profession to women.
● Perspectives: quarterly journal of comparative education, vol. XXVIII, No. 1, March 1998, pp. 173-189 ©UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000.
● Eminent Victorian Women by E. Longford.
● Witches, midwives and nurses by B. Ehrenreich and D. English.
● Florence Nightingale by Alex Attewell, curator of the Nightingale Museum.