Florence Nightingale is perhaps one of the most famous Victorian figures in history. A romantic image of a nurse attending to sick soldiers by the light of a lantern is usually permanently impressed onto the brain of every British child as they are told how she revolutionised medical sanitation and saved countless lives during the Crimean War. However, although she undoubtedly saved many lives through her efforts to normalise sanitation throughout hospitals and medical procedures, this movement did not come about in quite the way most people believe.
Florence was brought up in a fairly wealthy family, and due to her father’s modern views on women’s education was given a full education in various subjects including literature, mathematics and philosophy and quickly showed great academic prowess. However due to her status as a woman in an upper-class family, she was expected to never put this knowledge to much use, instead her role lay in that of mother and wife. Angered at being denied the chance to use her great mind Florence rebelled and decided to become a nurse, considered to be an unsuitable occupation for a lady of such standing. Her family opposed, but eventually gave in when she was appointed Superintendent at the Hospital for Invalid Gentlewomen at Harley Street.
Florence was not the typical nursing figure, she was not especially sympathetic and understanding although throughout her life she worked vigorously for the bettering of the lives of the less well-off. She lacked what was deemed the appropriate bedside manner – her own sister described her as ”a shocking nurse. [She] has little or none of what is called charity or philanthropy, she is ambitious – very, and would like… to regenerate the world… I wish she could be brought to see that it is the intellectual part that interests her, not the manual.’ Florence’s interests were in the administrative, at which she was very adept, however she could be impatient with other people and was reported especially to have not worked well with other women.
However Florence is most well known for her work in the Crimean War – she and 38 other female volunteers were deployed to the Ottoman Empire in 1854, where death rates were appalling and the conditions in the army medical camps even more so. Florence wrote an urgent plea to The Times asking for food supplies, desperately needed medicine and means to better the unhygienic conditions of the camp. Supplies were quickly sent and efforts were made to clean up the hospital. However, despite all this, Florence remained stubbornly ignorant of the true cause of most of the soldiers’ deaths – poor sanitation. Ironically she refused to acknowledge as the chief cause of death, instead believing that it was mainly due to poor nutrition and overworking of the soldiers. As a result the death rate in Florence’s camp rose to the highest of any other in the East, most deaths resulting from typhoid, typhus, cholera and dysentery – ten times more than deaths from battle wounds. This is hardly surprising considering the overcrowding, poor ventilation and nearby sewer.
It wasn’t until Florence returned to England and began collecting evidence to present to the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army that she realised her error and came to the painful realisation that many of the soldiers in her care had died as a result of her ignorance. In view of this, Florence pledged the remainder of her life to amending her mistakes and ensuring that sanitation issues were put at the forefront of medical care.
Florence wrote the extremely influential book ‘Notes on Nursing’ – in it writing to the prospective nursing students that ‘Every day sanitary knowledge, or the knowledge of nursing, or in other words, of how to put the constitution in such a state as that it will have no disease, or that it can recover from disease, takes a higher place. It is recognised as the knowledge which every one ought to have – distinct from medical knowledge, which only a profession can have.’ This book served as the cornerstone of nursing for years to come, its messages remaining as true today as they were in the 19th century.
Although Florence was bed-ridden from 1857 onwards from brucellosis, she continued her work in solitude, earning the Royal Red Cross from Queen Victoria in 1883. She also suffered from depression, believe to have been brought on from the realisation of her mistakes during the Crimean War. She didn’t stop her work until her later life, when blindness prevented her from continuing – however she managed to achieve much during her years of perpetual solitude; she was highly involved in the development of sanitary hospital building plans, helped abolish prostitution laws which were overly harsh to women and advocated better hunger relief in India, amongst many other projects. Despite her mistakes, she remains an influential figure in nursing and medicine – she may not have saved the lives of the Crimean soldiers, but her later work on raising awareness of sanitation has saved countless lives since.