If there is one nurse pioneer whose name is recognizable among regular citizens, not just those in healthcare, it is Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), “the Lady with the Lamp,” whose name is synonymous with caring and advocacy. In fact, the World Health Organization designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife – the year that happens to be the 200th anniversary of her birth.
Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy, to British parents who named her after the city where they had traveled on an extended holiday before and after she was born. Her wealthy upbringing meant that she was expected to marry at a young age and become a lady of stature, but Nightingale had other ideas. She was more interested in helping the ill and poor in the villages surrounding her family’s large estate. By the age of 16, she told her parents that nursing was her calling from God. She rejected a marriage proposal and instead set her sights on nursing school.
Nursing School in Germany and a Nursing Career in England
In 1844, Nightingale enrolled in nursing school at the Lutheran Hospital of Pastor Fliedner in Germany, despite her parents’ objections. She received extra training in Paris, France, then returned to London to begin her career at a hospital for gentlewomen. She was promoted to superintendent within a year of being hired. The hospital had a cholera outbreak and Nightingale worked to improve hygiene practices, significantly lowering the death rate at the hospital.
A Nurse Woman Pioneer
When the Crimean War broke out in late 1853, Britain sent thousands of soldiers to the Black Sea. Supplies were low and military hospitals there became overrun with tens of thousands of soldiers. In 1854, the Secretary of War, who had learned of Nightingale’s successes in her London hospital, asked her to organize a corps of nurses and bring them to care for the fallen soldiers in the Crimea (an area now part of the Ukraine). When she and her recruited nurses arrived in Constantinople, they were horrified by the conditions—contaminated water in the hospital, a lack of even basic supplies, and most soldiers dying from infectious diseases like cholera and typhoid.
Dedicated to Improving Hygiene
Nightingale was tireless in her efforts to improve the hospital’s conditions. She established a laundry so patients would have clean linens. She also engaged well patients to help clean the hospital thoroughly and spent her days and nights tending to the soldiers. After dark, she carried a lamp while making her rounds, earning her the name, “the Lady with the Lamp.” Her efforts reduced the hospital’s death rate by two-thirds.
Honored by the Queen of England, Admired by Many
When the war ended and Nightingale returned to England in 1856, she was lauded a hero and presented with numerous accolades, including a prize of $250,000 from the British government. She used those funds to further her cause and established St. Thomas’ Hospital and its Nightingale Training School for Nurses.
Nightingale became an admired figure worldwide. Young women of all classes wanted to follow in her footsteps, and nursing grew to be considered an honorable occupation. She helped create a Royal Commission to study the health of the army, and with the help of leading statisticians, showed how her sanitary commission’s efforts decreased death rates. She became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and was named an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.
Continuing Her Fight from Her Bed
Nightingale contracted Crimean fever during her service in the war and became homebound and bedridden by the age of 38 years old. But this did not stop her from advocating for healthcare reform. She published research on public sanitation issues and how to run civilian hospitals. She was awarded the merit of honor at the age of 88 by King Edward.
A Pioneer of Modern Nursing
Nightingale devoted most of her life to preventing disease and providing compassionate care to patients of all backgrounds, even while she was often sick herself. International Nurses Day has been celebrated on her birthday, May 12, since 1965.
Ana Fernandez, associate professor at American Sentinel University explains that Nightingale not only shaped modern-day nursing, but also influenced how pathways in nursing have developed. “Nightingale influenced nursing by providing for formal education for nurses,” says Dr. Fernandez. “Her influence on infection prevention and control is evident and her statistical knowledge gave way to our use of data to guide clinical practice today. Her calling to serve the less fortunate using a holistic approach was the foundation for public health nursing and case management. Nightingale inspires me to see that each specialty within nursing has a unique area of knowledge, but we share the overall goal of holistic patient care based on best practice.”
Florence and Innovation: Introducing the Ask Florence App
In the spirit of the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, American Sentinel University is developing an educational tool for nurses and prospective nurses that celebrates Nightingale’s life. The app lets students interact with an animated version of Florence Nightingale to learn more about her contributions to nursing and society, get answers to predefined questions, and more. “Florence Nightingale was an innovator,” says Dr. Fernandez. “During the year of the 200th anniversary of her birth, especially as the world grapples with a global pandemic, we want to celebrate her life and impact and encourage all nurses to innovate.”
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