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Florence Nightingale - Victorian Feminist and Medical Reformist

Updated on February 22, 2012

An incredible life forged by determination

The name of Florence Nightingale is not an unknown one. We all know of her great strides in medicine, changing the medical profession into one of respect, hygiene and care. Her role as a nurse and administrator to the soldiers of the Crimean War is well known.

Many details of Florence's life are not so well known. Despite her wealth, she managed to escape from a trap of control that demanded that she fit into the role prescribed of her - that she be the perfect English lady.

From an early age, at the age of 17, Florence was aware that her life was on a different path, something she did not dare tell anyone. In her journal entry of February 7, 1837, she wrote, "God has instructed me and called me to serve him". From that day forward, Florence was convinced that she would uncover the path forward to complete the assignment set out before her and would accept its terms, no matter how difficult.

Florence's family background could be called "fortunate" in that she was born in 1820 to an aristocratic English family while traveling in Florence, Italy, which is how she received her name. In 1838 at 18 years of age, the family took an adventurous journey across Europe in a stagecoach, pulled by six horses at the head. The poor travelers were bumped around on less than adequate roads, but Florence remained wide-eyed and fascinated. Although life in England could be considered "interesting", filled with social obligations to her extended family at their various country residences and frivolous rich girl activities like embroidering, painting and reciting poetry, she found the European continent completely fascinating. Particularly in her birthplace of Florence, she adored the opera, architecture and soul of the city. She wrote in her journal, "It was if the fantasy of the 1001 nights had been brought to life". She was an art lover and an adventurer at heart.

The family extended their stay, and in the autumn of 1838 the family settled into Geneva, Switzerland. There, for the first time in her life, she came into contact with the way the "other half" lived. Until now, she had never found herself face to face with poverty. There she noticed political refugees, many who had escaped with only the clothes on their backs. There was sickness, suffering, and other difficulties, accompanied with the powerful spirit to overcome them.

Florence had two distinct sides to her personality - the sensitive and the precise. She loved art, beauty, balls, opera and dancing. Warm, spiritual and joyful, she was a positive person. The other side of her character craved order and discipline, details and precision. In her journals she busily prepared lists,recorded details, and was a master mathematician, to her mother's and sister's dismay.

Destiny Called Her

Returning to England a year later, Florence battled a type of depression born of frustration, idleness and despair. She was expected to find an eligible young bachelor, and her best friend Marianne's brother Henry proposed. A fine young man, the Nightingales could not fathom why Florence would hear nothing of the marriage.

It is interesting to note that the two Nightingale sisters, Florence and Parthenope (named after the Parthenon in Greece), chose completely different lives. Parthe was happy with her limited role, and expected Florence to also fall into line behind her sister. Their mother, who was not a terribly driven person, was also much more than contented with the regimented role of women of this era. First and foremost, a woman's ambition centered around marriage - first, to be a marriageable young woman (which Florence definitely was) in order to "catch" an ideal candidate of a husband. After marriage, her occupation was to primarily hold onto and find happiness with that husband. Outside ambitions, occupations or learning were highly discouraged.

Her family was too busy to notice Florence's inner turmoil. There were two homes in the county to attend to, plus a flat in London, social obligations and clothes' fittings. Florence's appearance also misled them. She had shiny chestnut colored hair, an inherent goodness; warm, kind, gentle and good. She directly contrasted her older sister, who has been described as negative, sullen, and difficult. Furthermore she did not hold herself above her fellows, unlike her older sister. The mother and sister threw up their hands in despair at Florence's idealistic thinking, although she had not yet determined her mission.

Love or Career

Florence met and fell in love with Richard Milnes, a politician and poet, a man she truly loved. The family was relieved - at last Florence had come to her senses, now everything would be under control again! But within her was a higher purpose, which she simply could not deny. She knew that in order to accomplish her "mission", she must deliberately choose to remain single. Today's woman would find such a situation - husband or career - a formidable decision, since it is only natural to want to share one's life with an ideal partner. However, Florence was ready to make this sacrifice.

Victorian English Woman

For approximately sixteen years, between the ages of 17 to age 33 she walked a rocky path.

Mathematics scholar and Traveler

Refusing to marry, she mastered mathematics, read, studied and traveled to visit relatives and battled the demons within her and beside her. This time of floundering could be called a waste, but it was in fact necessary. These years were the raw material which constructed within her to the iron will which enabled her to later revolutionize the hospital system that was an abomination in their day.

Nursing and Hospitals

When Florence turned her gaze to the medical profession, it could not have been worse for her family. The nurses of her day were highly unfit for the job. In many cases, they were drug or alcohol dependent, taking the patients' medicine themselves. Many were women of questionable character who were simply babysitting their patients - and a bad job at that. A hospital was not a clean place, and two patients might share the same bed with completely unrelated illnesses. Germs and infections ran rampant. Being sent to the hospital was almost synonymous with a death sentence.

Women's roles

In Victorian times, a young woman (unmarried - of any age) was required to get her family's permission for just about everything: to travel, to study, and to pursue any purposeful activity. In this respect, women of wealth and women in poverty were equally victimized. Treated as children, their happiness largely determined to the extent that her husband willed her happiness and well-being. A mentally unstable man could well be a tyrant.

Rich women

Rich women were not encouraged to use their brains for any good purpose whatsoever. Their lives revolved around embroidering, gossiping, making trouble and entertaining guests. This made for ill vices and played from boredom to creating intrigue for others. This explains a lot of mischief in the lives of women. They had nothing better to do with their time, and exploring their capabilities or options was frowned upon!

Poor Women

Rich women hated their poor female counterparts, who worked in factories for a pittance. This hard won independence brought them little or no concrete result for their trouble. Many of them worked long hours, received an insultingly low wage which was barely enough to buy bread. To make ends meet, some worked as freelance seamstresses for rich clients. The wealthy wore amazing, silken, luxurious finery. The poor, by contrast, wore tattered clothing and had very few amenities. Many women died of illnesses due to overwork and exhaustion, leaving behind poor orphans which later took to stealing and or prostitution. As drink has been called "the curse of the working class", their husbands were in many cases bad providers and often alcoholic. The husbands most certainly took out their frustrations on their spouses. It is not preposterous to assume that many of these women were beaten for sport and made to suffer for situations that were beyond their control. Birth control certainly did not exist. An additional reality was that their employers were known to pressure the women into prostitution since it was well known that their precarious financial situation.

Florence Finds her Way

On a trip to Rome, she met Sidney Hubert, who later became Secretary of War during the Crimean War. The two of them had a lifelong friendship, and both he and his future wife became her champions in revolutionizing the medical field.

On her return from Rome, she purposely (and definitely without permission) made a detour to a medical training school in Germany. It was the first of its kind. There she learned the hands on practicalities of care, hygiene, and documentation. Florence was in heaven. Now she must tell her family and try to get their support.

When she told her family of her intentions, her mother forbade her to ever set foot in that medical school again. Parthe suggested that Florence stay with her so she could "teach" her the ways of life in the Victorian era, which was a cross between imprisonment and slavery. After six months of this treatment, Florence had had enough. She left her family and moved in with a relative. After sending a letter asking them for forgiveness, which they did not answer, she never asked for permission or forgiveness again.

Returning to Germany, she grasped the entirety of the medical program. At this point, she was ready to open her own hospital in England.

She opened the Home of the Sick Gentlewomen at Upper Harley Street. Nurses who arrived were given a short time to adjust, then asked to leave if they were not interested in complying with the new order. Little by little, the unqualified women were flushed out and better and better candidates began to appear. The new hospital was a success.

The Crimean War

The Crimean War has been described as an opportunity for European powers to "grab" what remained of the Ottoman Empire. France, England, Greece, Russia and other Balkan factions were all involved. Russia had been the policemen in the eastern region of the smaller Balkan states, suppressing any potential uprisings as the Empire "the Sick Man of Europe" began losing control. But Russia expected in return that England and France would allow Russia a free hand in exercising her own politics in the region in exchange for this control function. The European powers saw things differently, as did Vienna. Russia removed its troops from Vienna as an attempt to hold the peace in the area. When France, under Napoleon's leadership announced itself as the political authority for the Holy Land, Russia did not agree. By the late 1840s Karl Marx and Engels foresaw a Ruso-Euro war in the region, and in October 1953, troops were dispatched.

The War's Significance

The Crimean War was important for many reasons. It was the first war to be documented by photojournalists and informed upon in detail on a daily basis.

The English army was am embarrassment. Immature and unready, fatalities were ridiculously, and unnecessary, high. A blood bath - this was the scenario where Florence's nurses tried to make a difference, and succeeded.

Science after Surviving the Trip to the Hospital

Florence Creates a System from the chaos in Crimea

Sent by Sidney Hubert, Florence and her team of 38 nurses were sent to a medical camp not far from Istanbul. It has been asserted that either directly or indirectly, Florence's nurses reduced the death rate from 42% to 2% (soldiers dying from injuries).

The nurses weren't exactly welcome on arrival. The doctors ignored them and simply hoped they would go away. Florence instructed them to be patient and to prepare bandages. When the invasion of injured bodies hit, the doctors had no choice but to utilize the nurses on a constant basis til the end of the war. In addition to medicine, Florence organized a plyace to process food and other areas of medical care. Her scope was never ending. Improving light, ventilation, plumbing and onwards, Florence plunged into her assignment as superintendent.

Florence was much more than just a medical administrator. She wrote handwritten letters to the wives and mothers of the wounded men. She took it upon herself to record a dying man's last words or requests for family back home. Of course, this work had to be done by lamplight well into the early morning hours. There were so many details to look after. Florence, before going to bed herself, took a lamp and carried it among the sleeping patients to be sure that each was peacefully slumbering, that not one would go unattended in some unforeseen needed moment. For this she has been fondly remembered as the Lady with the Lamp.

Hospital Administrator, Writer, and Patient

Florence never quite regained her health due to many sleepless nights, overwork and exposure to Crimean Fever known as Brucellosis, which she battled for the remainder of her life. She probably also suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

After the war she was for periods of time bedridden and needed sleep and peace. It is interesting to note that she barred her mother and sister from her room and rarely left it!

In addition to illness, she suffered a type of depression. In those days, germ cell theory and infection prevention were still relatively new theories. Florence never quite accepted these new theories, though in part she continued to explore and consider all the possibilities. She later realized that the sanitation of the hospital was possibly the primary promoter of health. A precise and self-critical person, she asked herself if she had indeed treated her soldiers to the best of her ability.

In spite of these self-doubts which seemed to thwart her throughout her entire life, she continued to read, write, do research and promote a new medical system which affected the entire world.

She has been called the most well known Victorian woman besides Queen Victoria herself.

Although she had male admirers, some say that she remained chaste her entire life. She took a religious approach to her calling, or maybe she was also a product of the highly moralistic Victorian Era. She had friendships with a select number of women friends, including an aunt, first cousin and confidante Mary Clarke. Other than that, she seemed to prefer the company of powerful men and referred to herself in the masculine as "a man of action" or "a man of business". This is not unheard of in other languages but in English it is a bit unusual.

A national - and international - heroine

In 1859 she published the "Notes on Nursing" a concentrated textbook which was the backbone of her medical knowledge and program. Joan Quixley of the Nightingale School of Nursing wrote that the book was the first of its kind ever to be written, because simple rules of health were only beginning to be known. Many of its topics were of vital importance not only for the well-being and recovery of patients, (especially) when hospitals were riddled with infection and when nurses were still mainly regarded as ignorant, uneducated persons. "The book has an important place in the history of nursing, for it was written by the founder of modern nursing"

She inspired the United States Sanitary Commission which decisively influenced the type of medical treatment and care afforded the American soldiers during the War Between the States during the war and forever afterwards.

In her honor, the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery was named for her at Kings College London, as well as in other schools in England, as well as the Sydney Hospital in New South Wales, Australia. In addition to training British nurses, she mentored Linda Richards in 1870 who became a great medical pioneer in America and later in Japan.

Florence was the first woman ever to receive the Order of Merit in 1907. She also received the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria in 1883, and the Honorary Freedom of the City of London in 1908. Each year on her birthday, May 12 is celebrated as International CFS Awareness Day.

At In 1910 at the age 90 she peacefully passed away in her sleep. Her family declined the honor of having her be buried at Westminster Abbey and is buried at a family grave in Hampshire.

A very rare photograph of Florence as an elderly woman


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    • profile image

      Erekfeexite 5 years ago

      We accustomed to receive high on life however as of late We have built up a new amount of resistance.

    • EuroCafeAuLait profile image

      Anastasia Kingsley 6 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      Yes, with her books around her she seems happy and content. Her fierce battle for the recognition of nursing as a medical field in itself took a toll on her physically, from which she never fully recovered. Writing from her bed, she transferred all her knowledge and experience for future generations and tried to keep away from negative people! An extraordinary woman, to say the least. Thanks for your comment and for your follow. Best regards, ECAL

    • Keri Summers profile image

      Keri Summers 6 years ago from West of England

      Very informative and nicely broken up and digestible article. I learnt new things about FN, put into the context of her time and family. The world still needs idealists! I loved the photo at the end - surrounded by her books and interests.

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      Mythreyi Ragothaman 6 years ago

      There is no rare or good pics of Florence nightingale and

      it is not useful for project makers .I am not happy .