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Biography of British Nurse, Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Lamp

Updated on February 23, 2013
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She was known as 'The Lady With the Lamp.' She is remembered for her work during the Crimean War and the changes she made to the role of nursing in hospitals. She was also a gifted statistician.

Early Days

Florence Nightingale was born on 12 May 1820. Her name comes from the Italian city of her birth. Her wealthy parents were in Florence as part of a tour of Europe at the time of her birth.

When she was young, Nightingale had several experiences which she believed were calls from God. She was overwhelmed by a strong desire to devote her life to helping others.

Nightingale decided she wanted to go into nursing. Her parents were not happy about this. They expected her to get married and have children. Despite her parent's opposition, Nightingale began her nursing training. In 1853, she took the post of superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street, London.

The Crimean War

The Crimean War broke out in 1853. This was a conflict between the Russian Empire and the alliance of the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia. Nightingale and her staff of volunteer nurses were sent to a British camp.

On her arrival at the hostpital in Scutari in Turkey, she found that the level of medical care was not good. There was not enough medicine and matters of hygiene were being neglected. Nightingale wrote to The Times newspaper asking for help. The British government responded. A new hospital was built.

During her time as a nurse in the Crimean War, Nightingale improved standards of cleanliness and worked to reduce the numbers of soldiers who were dying from illnesses such as typhus. Nightingale believed that soldiers were dying because of the poor living conditions. It was her experiences during the Crimean War which helped to later shape her ideas about infection.

In the Crimea, the Nightingale Fund was set up at a public meeting to recognize Nightingale for her work in the war. The money was to be used for the training of nurses. Many donations were received.

Back in Britain

When Nightingale returned to England in 1856, she used the money from the Nightingale fund to set up the Nightingale Training School for nurses at St Thomas' Hospital in London. Nurses trained there were sent to hospitals all over Britain. The methods promoted by Nightingale spread.

Nightingale's theories, published in Notes on Nursing (1860) had a major influence on nursing. Her ideas about sanitation, military health and hospital planning become widely accepted. In Notes on Nursing, she wrote: "Every day sanitary knowledge, or the knowledge of nursing, or in other words, of how to put the constitution in such a state as that it will have no disease, or that it can recover from disease, takes a higher place. It is recognised as the knowledge which every one ought to have – distinct from medical knowledge, which only a profession can have"

Statistics

Nightingale led the way in the visual presentation of information. She used statistical graphics, such as pie charts. Although that doesn't sound like anything exciting these days, at the time using the pie chart, which had first been developed by William Playfair in 1801, was quite a novelty.

"She was one of the most important statistical pioneers of the 19th century, and nobody knows that now," says Mark Bostridge, author of the biography Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend. "One of the greatest gifts she had, and this applies as much to nursing theory as it does to her later work in India, is that she could imagine herself in situations, and with a certain amount of statistical material, could work out solutions for things. She never visited India, and yet she had all these prescriptions for improving health and social conditions that were very far-reaching, and certainly ahead of their time."

Nightingale inspired nurses in the American Civil War. She was asked by the Union goverment for advice on organizing field medicine. Her ideas inspired the United States Sanitary Commission.

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Her Legacy

Florence Nightingale died on 13 August 1910 at the age of 90. She is buried in the graveyard at St. Margaret Church in East Wellow, Hampshire.

Nightingale's social reforms during her life included improving healthcare in Britain, supporting hunger relief in India, helping to abolish harsh laws regulating prostitution and increasing the number of females in the workforce.

Most of all she will be remembered for the part she played in the creation of the modern nursing profession. Her nursing school at St Thomas Hospital was the first secular nursing school in the world. It is now part of King's College, London.

International Nurses Day is celebrated on her birthday each year.

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    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I had no idea she had such far-reaching effects on the medical field. Voted up, etc. One note, however... she certainly wrote in that tortured, stilted Victorian way-- lost my way 3 times reading those two sentences in her Notes on Nursing!