Florence Nightingale: Founder of Modern Nursing, Pt1: The Crimean Experience

Article excerpt

Ms. Baly, a nurse who earned her doctorate for research on the fate of the Florence Nightingale Fund, reminds us of our continuing debt to the life and work of this complex and still influential Victorian woman.

1 Humane Medicine Volume 2, Number 1, 1986, pp. 13-18.

The particular profession for which Florence was clearly marked out both by her instincts and her capabilities was at that time a particularly disreputable one. Certainly things have changed since those days, and that they have changed is due, far more than any other human being, to Miss Nightingale herself.

-- Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians

Reformers tend to overstate their case. By the midnineteenth century, reforms in nursing already were in the air. A number of religious orders, some connected with the High Church movement, had acolytes, who were nursing in hospitals and in the community, while the Quakers, under the leadership of Mrs. Fry, had started a nursing institute. In addition to the religious organizations, some teaching hospitals were beginning their own reforms in order to meet the needs of medicine. Charles Dickens' much-quoted character, Sairey Gamp, was a caricature of the 1830s, and hospital nursing merely reflected the general attitude and standard of medicine of the day. Nevertheless, the changes already under way fell far short of what was required to meet the health needs of the country. Miss Nightingale's great strength was that she studied both in England and on the Continent and, taking the best from each, hammered out her own system which was secular and nonsectarian--suitable, as she said, "for any class or creed."

Florence Nightingale was born in Italy in 1820, the second daughter of wealthy parents. Her mother was a great beauty, who aspired to be a fashionable hostess. Her father, William, was cultivated, clever, a Unitarian and, in politics, a Whig and a subscriber to political causes. Mr. Nightingale took great pains with the education of his daughters, which he largely supervised himself. Florence was an apt pupil and worked hard; at one time it was thought that mathematics would be her vocation. In the end she had little formal instruction but she had a gift for "figures," which in later life was to be one of her sharpest weapons. The other advantage of the Nightingale home was that her mother loved playing hostess in the grand Whig manner. As a young girl, Florence became friendly with the Herberts, Lord Palmerston, later to become Prime Minister, literary personalities, and people like the reformer Lord Ashley, later the Earl of Shaftesbury. It was at his suggestion that Florence began to read reports on health matters by such public health reformers as Dr. Kay, Southwood Smith, and Edwin Chadwick. These reports fascinated her and started her on the path that eventually made her one of the nation's foremost experts in public health.

On October 15, 1854 (after the Crimean War had begun), Miss Nightingale was asked to take a party of nurses at the government's expense to the hospital in Scutari, on the Asian side of the Black Sea opposite Constantinople. She knew that, if the mission was to succeed, and she was to prove the value of female nursing, the discipline must be complete: one person (herself) must have final authority. Many have stressed the fact that Miss Nightingale could find only 38 suitable nurses, but the party was selected, equipped, and off in five days; the wonder is that she found 38. In the end the team consisted of 10 Roman Catholic nuns, eight Anglican sisters, six sisters from St. John's House, and 14 hospital nurses.

When the party arrived at the Barrack Hospital, Scutari, they found it filthy, dilapidated, and insanitary; 200 prostitutes were living in its cellars and a dirty rabble was lodged around the walls. The system through which the hospital acquired its supplies was hampered by red tape so that the rations did not get through to the common soldier. …