The Lady of the Lamp: Florence Nightingale Was a Light for Women and the Wounded

Article excerpt

Florence Nightingale was a career nurse at a time when women did not have careers and nurses did not receive training. She was a hospital reformer and a pioneer in statistical analysis in an age when such accomplishments were reserved for men. Today, her legacy of caring, innovation and perseverance reminds us to never take no for an answer.

"I attribute my success to this--I never gave or took any excuse."

Nightingale, named after Florence, Italy, where she was born on May 12, 1820, was the daughter of a wealthy British landowner. Her parents were progressive--active in the anti-slavery movement and believers in the education of women. Her father educated Nightingale and her sister Parthenope in European and classical languages, history, philosophy and mathematics.

In her youth, Nightingale became frustrated with the limited opportunities for women in her social class. She began to investigate possible occupations for women as she visited the sick among London hospitals. At the time, nursing involved little more than administering medicine, and society viewed it as an occupation for the uneducated and lower classes. But in her travels to Europe and Africa with her family, Nightingale was inspired by the discipline and organization of nuns caring for the less fortunate. The seeds of a new approach to nursing blossomed in her mind.

By the age of 25, Nightingale had rejected several offers of marriage, and she told her parents she wanted to become a nurse. They did not support her ambitions. But while visiting the sick in a London hospital, Nightingale met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the United States. Blackwell told her of the considerable obstacles and prejudice she had overcome to pursue a career and encouraged Nightingale to persevere.

In 1851, her father finally gave his permission for Nightingale to study nursing at the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses in Germany. By 1853, she was appointed superintendent of the Hospital for Invalid Gentlewomen in London.

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"How very little can be done under the spirit of fear."

That same year, Russia invaded Turkey. The British and French went to Turkey's aid, entering the Crimean War. The Times of London reported that thousands of British soldiers were dying, not of battle wounds, but of diseases such as typhus, cholera and dysentery. The public outcry led the secretary of war to recruit Nightingale as the superintendent of female nurses dispatched to the front at Scutari.

Although Nightingale was assured her help and expertise would be welcomed and supported, the prevailing prejudice against women in medicine thwarted her initial efforts to alleviate the horrid conditions she discovered in army hospitals. The unwashed soldiers lay without blankets, soap or decent food. They were covered in filth, and the facilities were overrun with vermin.

But the military officers and doctors took Nightingale's protestations against the conditions as personal insults, and she received little help. So she used her contacts at The Times to report details to the public of how the wounded soldiers were being treated. British citizens organized relief funds, and Nightingale was soon given the task of reorganizing and sanitizing the army hospitals in Turkey.

She established laundry and kitchen operations, looked after the soldiers' wives and children, and even provided reading and recreation rooms. Over the next year, the death rate among patients fell from over 40 percent to 2 percent, thanks to her innovations in sanitation and nutrition.

At night, she was the only woman allowed in the patient ward. She walked among the wounded, comforting them and tending to their needs. The soldiers began to call her "The Lady of the Lamp."

"Were there none who were discontented with what they have, the world would never reach anything better. …