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Florence Nightingale: Nurse, Pioneering Statistician, and Victorian Icon

Who was the lady with the lamp?

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  • Florence Nightingale c. 1858.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As the Crimean War raged throughout the 1850s, Florence Nightingale and 38 other female nurses traveled from Britain to the Ottoman Empire to aid in the war effort. Upon their arrival, they found atrocious living conditions for the soldiers. Basic hygiene and sanitary procedures were being neglected, and more soldiers were dying from dysentery and other preventable illnesses than battle wounds. Florence Nightingale simply would not stand for that.

Born to humanitarian parents who believed in the importance of women's education, Florence and her sister began schooling early on in their youth. They studied history, writing, mathematics, Latin, Greek, Italian, classical literature, and philosophy. An early mentor and lifelong friend of Florence’s was Mary Clarke. It was Clarke who truly displayed the full potential of women for Nightingale. Considered eccentric for her time, Clarke was friends with male intellectuals and believed in full equality between men and women. She also assisted Nightingale on her journey to Scutari in the Ottoman Empire (now part of Istanbul, Turkey).

When Nightingale was able to fully grasp the severity of the conditions in Scutari, she wrote to the British government calling for action to be taken. The result was the construction of a prefabricated hospital that was shipped to Scutari. In said hospital, Nightingale implemented sanitation protocols that are still used today, including the most basic of rules: handwashing. The death rate dropped from 42% to 2% as a result of Nightingale’s initiatives. She was also instrumental in calling attention to the sewer and ventilation issues within the surrounding area. Within six months of her arrival, the deaths related to those issues significantly dropped as well.

The Illustrated London News
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  • Nightingale featured in an edition of The Illustrated London News, 1855.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Nightingale received the enduring nickname “The Lady with the Lamp” from making nightly rounds to care for soldiers. After the military staff had gone to sleep, Nightingale would walk from room to room to check on individual soldiers in her care. From these nightly excursions, soldiers began to refer to her as the “The Lady with the Lamp.”

In 1855, the Nightingale Fund was established in Crimea to train new generations of nurses. It was named in recognition of Nightingale’s contributions to the war and to improving the living conditions of the soldiers fighting there. Returning back to England, Nightingale opened the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas' Hospital in 1860—the first secular nursing school in the world. The school has since become a part of King’s College London and has been renamed the  Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery.

Nightingale next turned her attention to the health conditions in India. Nightingale campaigned for the establishment of a Royal Commission to ensure safe and sanitary conditions for British soldiers stationed in India, as well as the Indian people as a whole. Again, Nightingale’s efforts resulted in a drop in death rates.

In addition to being a dedicated nurse, Nightingale was a talented mathematician and a pioneer in statistics. She was an early adopter of the pie chart, which is sometimes called the Nightingale rose diagram for its association with Nightingale’s work. Nightingale used infographics to demonstrate poor health and sanitary conditions and sent her work to Parliament. Formatting her findings with these visual charts and graphs made it easier for those unfamiliar with statistics and medical jargon to fully grasp the severity of the situation.

In 1859, Nightingale was elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. She also became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.

In addition to her nursing and mathematical contributions, Nightingale was also an author. She wrote manuals and reports for her healthcare work, but she also became a women's rights icon for writing openly about her sense of self and how she felt about her societal obligations to marry and bear children. She was said to have ended a nine-year courtship when marriage was proposed because she felt it would interfere with her nursing career. She also wrote extensively about theology and her strong religious beliefs, which motivated her to pursue her career.

Credited as the founder of the modern nursing profession, Florence Nightingale will continue to have a lasting legacy. Her discoveries and contributions  toward sanitation and hygiene are still mandatory practices in modern-day hospitals. The International Committee of the Red Cross began awarding the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international distinction a nurse can achieve, in 1912. The medal is awarded every two years to nurses or nursing aides for outstanding service, "exceptional courage and devotion to the wounded, sick or disabled or to civilian victims of a conflict or disaster" or "exemplary services or a creative and pioneering spirit in the areas of public health or nursing education." 

The 12th of May, Florence Nightingale’s birthday, is celebrated as International Nurses Day. Each year on that day, the president of India honors someone with the National Florence Nightingale Award. New nurses recite the Nightingale Pledge during their pinning ceremony to indicate the completion of their training. 

With multiple hospitals, awards, and schools named in her honor, statues erected in her likeness, and continued documentation and use of her techniques and practices, Florence Nightingale will surely continue to have an impact on modern—and future—health care.