Farewell, Florence. On August 13, 1910, Florence Nightingale, writer, statistician, and nursing pioneer, died in London at the ripe old age of 90, leaving an incredible legacy of compassionate, effective nursing care.
Florence was born in Florence, Italy (hence her name) to wealthy parents and was raised at Embley Park and Lea Hurst, her family’s two country estates. In 1837, when she was just shy of 17 years old, she received what she believed to be a call from God to take up nursing, a dirty, difficult profession that, at the time, was generally seen as unsuitable for women. It was certainly unsuitable for upper-class women, and when Florence announced her intentions to her family in 1844, her mother was not pleased, to say the least.
Still, Florence persevered, educating herself and rejecting a proposal from Richard Moncton Milnes for fear that marriage would interfere with her profession. She met and befriended the politician Sidney Herbert in 1847; Herbert and his wife would prove instrumental in facilitating Florence’s work in the Crimea, and in return she acted as an advisor to him in his political career.
She traveled widely, and observed the care of the sick all over the world. In Germany, she received four months of medical training at the Institution of Kaiserwerth. After returning to England, Nightingale took up the post of superintendant at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London in 1853.
The following year, however, reports of the horrific conditions of the wounded soldiers in the Crimea encouraged Florence to act. She gathered a staff of 38 women volunteers, trained them herself, and set sail in October 1854. They arrived in November and found things in a sad state indeed. The medical staff was overworked, medicines were in short supply, and hygiene (not too great in the mid-19th century anyway) was being widely disregarded. As a result, infections were rife, and they were killing men left and right.
Florence immediately got to work, but the death toll continued to rise. It was only when a Sanitary Commission sent by the government arrived in 1855 to flush out the sewers and improve the ventilation that death rates began to go down. Still, Nightingale believed the soldiers were mostly dying from poor nutrition and supplies. It was only later, when she began collecting evidence for the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army, that she realized the poor overall living conditions were killing soldiers like flies. As a result, in her later career, she turned her attention to advocating more sanitary hospital designs and conditions.
While Florence was in the Crimea, she was publicly recognized for her work in the war and the Nightingale Fund for the training of nurses was established. Donations poured in, and by 1859 she was able to set up the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’s Hospital, which officially opened on July 9, 1860. Nightingale also took time to write Notes on Nursing, which was published in 1859 and served as the cornerstone of the curriculum at her own school and other nursing schools being established.
Florence spent the rest of her career advocating for the nursing profession and for the improvement of care and conditions in hospitals throughout Britain. She introduced trained nurses into the workhouse system to care for sick workers (who earlier were only cared for by other, untrained workers). Some view this as the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service. She mentored Linda Richards, America’s first professionally trained nurse, in the 1870’s, and she was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria in 1883. In 1907, she became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit, and she was given the Honorary Freedom of the City of London a year later.
Nightingale died in her sleep at her home on Park Lane in London. Her relatives turned down the offer of burial in Westminster Abbey, instead choosing to inter her in the graveyard at St. Margaret Church in East Wellow, Hampshire.