Celebrating the Birthday of the ‘First Lady’ of Nursing

By Melissa Jackson

We have become accustomed to applauding the heroes and heroines of this pandemic – the doctors and nurses – who selflessly put their lives on the line on a daily basis treating Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals. But let’s not forget the woman who’s credited with being the founder of modern nursing, on the 200th anniversary of her birth.

Florence Nightingale was a formidable woman, by all accounts, a single-minded and determined individual, who was not going to let Victorian convention prevent her from having a career and vocation, the like of which was usually reserved for men in the 19th century.

She was born into a privileged family, on 12th May 1820, into a world where the only “career” for women of her status and position was to marry well and bear children. Working was for women of a lower class!

But Florence was intelligent, educated and a non-conformist – a perfect storm for advancement. I’m not wholly advocating that children should disobey their parents, but maybe question the assumption that they always know best. This young rebel defied her parents’ wishes, turned down an eminently suitable marriage proposal and enrolled at a nursing school in Germany because there was no hospital or school that trained nurses in Britain.

We are still reaping the benefits of her spirited nature today. She changed the practices of nursing and hospital hygiene forever. Her most notable achievements were during the Crimean War (1853-56), where, during the course of her work attending to wounded servicemen, she observed that the number of troops dying from disease (in British military hospitals) outstripped those succumbing to battle wounds. She suggested that improvements in sanitation and hygiene would save many lives.

However, her well-intentioned “intervention” was originally rejected by the male-dominated military officers and doctors, who refused to execute her proposed reforms.

But Florence was way ahead of her time and used her contacts in “the media” (AKA The London Times) to expose the perilous conditions in military hospitals. After a barrage of (bad) publicity, the army relented and gave Florence the task of improving sanitation in its hospitals and organising the soldiers’ care. The mortality rate in army hospitals was slashed from 60% in November 1854, (when she first arrived at Constantinople), to 2.2% in the spring of 1855.

When the war ended in 1856, Florence returned to Britain and continued to press the army to improve the quality of its medical care. Her efforts resulted in the creation of Britain’s Army Medical College. She then turned her attention to improving sanitary conditions in civilian hospitals.

In 1859 she wrote a book, Notes on Nursing, which was the first text book written specifically for the training of nurses and was published in various languages. In 1860, she opened the Nightingale School for Nurses (at St Thomas’s Hospital in London), whose mission was to train nurses to work in hospitals and to care for the poor.

Her achievements meant that nursing became increasingly professional and the role of nurses was valued more highly in hospitals.

Florence was also an advocate for women’s rights. In her 1860 book, Suggestions for Thought to Searchers After Religious Truths, she argued strongly for the removal of restrictions that prevented women from having careers. By 1901 there were 68,000 trained nurses in Britain – in 1850 there had not been any.

She carried on with her mission to improve hospital hygiene and nursing practice into her later years. In 1883- Florence was awarded the “Royal Red Cross” for her work and, in 1907, became the first woman to be awarded the “Order Of Merit”.

She died in 1910, but her memory lives on and her work and status is honoured every year on International Nurses Day, which is always close to her birthday. The event celebrates the contribution that nurses make to societies around the world and this year as a fitting tribute to the First Lady of Nursing, it is being held on 12th May, to mark her bicentenary.