Florence Nightingale Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111200325-Nightingale.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Following a deeply rooted passion to serve God and combining it with a strong will and intellect, Nightingale revolutionized the nursing profession and the design and conditions of medical care and hospital facilities.

Early Life

On May 12, 1820, Florence Nightingale was born in and named for the romantic city of Florence, Italy. Her mother, Frances (Fanny) Nightingale, thirty-two, was a socially ambitious and strong-willed woman; her father, William Edward Nightingale, twenty-five, was a scholarly and liberal Cambridge man. Florence had one older sister, Parthe, and when the family returned to England, the sisters’ education was first handled by governesses but soon taken over by their father. Thus, both girls received a broader and more liberal education than many women of their day. This early introduction to a competitive and intellectual world rather than a purely social and domestic one would be a great influence on Nightingale.

As a teenager, Nightingale was surrounded by relatives and friends, family visits and excursions to foreign countries, and the usual round of social events and gossip. Although she engaged in all the domestic and social obligations and was quite popular, she felt, as early as seventeen, a desire to do something more productive and useful with her life. She was expected to marry well and rear a family; still, Nightingale wanted more. In between social engagements, therefore, she would retreat into a private world of dreaming and writing what she later called her “private notes.” Then, in 1837, she wrote in one of her diaries that God had called her to His service, but for what she was not sure. For the next sixteen years she would be tormented by this uncertainty. During these years, she unhappily continued to lead the social life that her mother prescribed, but she managed to find the time for isolated hours of self-reflection as well as visiting and nursing sick relatives.

In 1839, both Nightingale sisters were presented at court, and there Florence met Henry Nicholson, who wooed her for six years before she finally refused his marriage proposal. She could give no concrete reason other than her desire to do God’s will, whatever that was. Again, she was overwhelmed by uncertainty about what her life’s work should be, and her spells of quiet frustration and spiritual agony worried her mother. After all, Nightingale was attractive, if not beautiful, with dark reddish hair, gray eyes, a gay smile, and a sense of humor tempered with a sharp intellect and curiosity.

In 1842, another suitor presented himself: Richard Monckton Milnes, a Member of Parliament, a linguist, and a social reformer of sorts; in short, he seemed the perfect mate for Nightingale. Her feelings were nevertheless divided, for in that year she learned of the work being done at the Institute of Deaconesses at Kaiserwerth, Germany, regarding the training of nurses in hospital work. For two years, she kept this knowledge to herself; then one day she tentatively voiced a desire to devote her life to nursing. Her family, especially her mother, rejected the idea completely, and for the next six years Florence suffered from the denial both spiritually and physically. She believed that God had called her again, yet since she was unable to follow his calling, she thought she must be somehow unworthy. The best she could do was nurse sick relatives, friends, and villagers. By 1847, she had worked herself into a state of ill health, marked by migraines, chronic coughing, and a near breakdown.

She went to Rome in 1848 to regain her spirits and health. There, she met Sidney Herbert and his wife, Liz; her friendship with Sidney marked a turning point in her life. After this meeting, she soon rejected her long-waiting suitor Richard Milnes, again disappointing her family. Now alone and desperate for an answer to God’s calling, she made her way (with the help of friends) to Kaiserwerth, Germany, but her family flatly refused to allow her to enter the school. By then, however, Nightingale was ill and suicidal; thus, she defied her family and in 1851, at the age of thirty-one, entered the questionable profession of nursing. Her rebellion did little good, however, for when she returned to England she found herself facing her mother’s anger. Again, she was plunged into the social life and for the next two years suffered as she followed her mother’s will, and, periodically, nursed the sick under the guidance of the Sisters of Charity in Paris. Then, in 1853, Liz Herbert made a decision on Florence’s behalf; she recommended her as the new superintendent at the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London. At age thirty-seven, Florence’s nursing career began in earnest.

Life’s Work

As superintendent of the institution for the next fourteen months, Nightingale surprised the committee that appointed her in two respects. First, the “ministering angel” they had thought that they recruited proved to be a tough-minded and practical administrator who completely reorganized the hospital, from food to beds to medical supplies to sanitary conditions. Second, Nightingale insisted that any poor and ill woman should be admitted, not only those who were members of the Church of England. With a fight, she got most of what she wanted. She also wanted trained nurses, however, and this request was not easy to fulfill. Nightingale therefore began to formulate plans to establish a training school for nurses along the lines of Kaiserwerth. Her plans were interrupted, however, when England and France declared war on Russia in March, 1854. War reports in The Times stated that while England and France were victorious in battle, the casualty rate was alarmingly high. In October, Nightingale left England for the shores of the Black Sea with a handful of poorly trained nurses. As a result, she made her way into the annals of the Crimean War.

Once again, the Herberts, this time Sidney, opened the way for Nightingale by appointing her superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the English General Hospitals in Turkey, a position never before held by a woman. It was a revolutionary step, and she took it gladly. Yet her initial enthusiasm was soon replaced by dogged determination, for what she found in the hospitals at Scutari was appalling. Despite assurances by the cabinet ministers in the War Office that everything was in order, Florence found the hospital and medical conditions deplorable. Besides a lack of basic medical supplies (bandages, splints, stretchers), nourishing food, adequate clothing, and clean water, the hospital was overrun with filth, vermin, and backed-up cesspools. In addition, the wounded, the diseased, and the dead were all crowded together in rooms with little or no ventilation. Foresight, luckily, had prompted Nightingale to bring supplies, equipment, and food with her, and while it was not nearly enough, it did help.

Lack of supplies, however, was not Nightingale’s only obstacle. Even though her position was an official one, she met with stubborn resistance from the military doctors and staff in Scutari. War and women, even if they were nurses, did not mix. Slowly and steadily, however, Nightingale began her nurses on a cleanup campaign. The job was difficult, yet in time, the men were cleaned, clothed, and fed, and the hospital was scrubbed and emptied (as much as possible) of the overflowing dirt. Her next task was to request the rebuilding of the Barrack...

(The entire section is 3082 words.)