Named after the city she was born in—Florence, Italy—Florence Nightingale lived her life in England. Her inspiration crossed oceans and ignited change within the community of nursing throughout the entire world.
She was reared in enormous affluence and wealth, an extremely educated young woman.1 Florence’s mother was so enamored with social life that when launching her daughters into society she added six bedrooms to their home to accommodate the entertaining she desired. Maids, footmen, and valets, often traveling between two mansions in England, cared for the two Nightingale daughters. There was nothing Florence either needed or desired that was not provided for her easily, elaborately, and with no consideration of the cost.
However, though Florence traveled with all economic opportunity, she found herself fascinated by social questions of the day and felt called to a different life, saying, “I craved for some regular occupation, for something worth doing, instead of frittering time away on useless trifles.”2
Such urgings began her exploration of the societal needs of her community, where she visited the homes of the sick. Her discovery of the quandary these people found themselves in led her to seek an answer to their substandard care. She found that the means of change came through the position of nursing.
As her peers attended balls, flirting with young men while sporting new dresses, Florence desired more. The life she sought was providing the care for those who were ill. In the early 1800’s the career of nursing was a common one, not respected by affluence, performed by poor women who had no other option.3 Her family, thinking it was beneath this young lady of affluence and position, would not support her desire.
“I craved for some regular occupation, for something worth doing, instead of frittering time away on useless trifles.”
Relentless in her purpose, she spent the next 14 years of consistent persuasion to gain the support of her family to pursue this career. She did not want to defy her parents, yet she could not deny her passion. Finally, with their blessing, she began in a position at the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances—simply a hospital for poor women.4 It was there that she launched her road of social reform. Florence was trained as a nurse while on the job with absolutely no pay from this hospital.
It was in 1844 that she began her crusade to change the conditions of hospitals after having worked in unbearable circumstances. She found the hospitals in squalor with the nursing profession nothing short of low-level maids, and determined to singlehandedly reform these institutions.
The real impact was made when she headed the nursing unit during the Crimean War. Not even wanted by the doctors at these British medical facilities, she was appointed to oversee female nurses in the military hospitals in Turkey. She arrived with a party of 38 nurses and began the difficult and thankless duty of assisting the physicians and caring for the needs of the wounded.5
The conditions they found of filth and inefficiency caused the mortality rate of the soldiers to be seven times higher in the hospital than on the battlefield. Miss Nightingale set about to change these by assisting both in effectively receiving incoming supplies as well as efficiency of care at the hospital. To accomplish this, she used the family relationships and acquaintances she had made while traveling as a young woman. When the war was over and the nurses sent home, Miss Nightingale personally saw to the financial needs of each nurse, paying them out of her own pocket.
As a result of her lifelong struggles with politicians and medical authorities, there was unprecedented reform. Florence used the money subscribed to her name after the Crimean War not for herself, but to found the Nightingale Home for Nurses.6 She was the first woman ever to receive the Order of Merit. Nursing as a profession and the sanitary conditions in hospitals were forever changed by her life, one full of grit and grace.
Understandably, Florence Nightingale’s life evokes feelings of admiration and respect. But if we look deeply into her specific achievements, we’d find that she probably wouldn’t have been able to accomplish such dramatic change if she hadn’t been born into wealth. She wouldn’t have been able to work without pay while training to be a nurse. She’d have been unable to assist her fellow nurses financially at the end of the Crimean War.
Nursing as a profession and the sanitary conditions in hospitals were forever changed by her life, one full of grit and grace.
There is also a real chance that she wouldn’t have been socially prepared to approach political influencers effectively had she not been world traveled. In other words, Florence would have lacked the connections with those same people to seek and gain an audience that enabled her to garner much needed supplies. She also used printed news to elicit public support—something she would have understood only as a result of her education.
It is from a life of wealth that Florence Nightingale achieved such high results. It was also from a place of compassion and humility that she saved so many lives. Stepping down from her previous life and embracing a new path of humbleness makes this lady impossible to define but very much one to inspire.
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