It could be said that Florence Nightingale was responsible for inventing modern nursing. Indeed, Nightingale did open up the professions to women generally. Her example and influence during the mid to late nineteenth Century were an important factor in opening doors to women. Nightingale’s own life reflects many of these changes. She was born in 1820, and was one of two daughters of a wealthy English family. Her mother was a beautiful society lady who had once turned down a favoured suitor because he was not wealthy enough.
She wanted both her daughters to be socially popular and to marry rich and important men. Florence’s father ensured that she had a good education. But she was frustrated because girls and women were always under parental supervision. She felt called to a life of action, but her family insisted that she divide her time between being with her family and attending social functions. She was not allowed to do anything on her own. When she was 16, Nightingale said that God spoke to her and called her to do His work. But Florence didn’t know what work she was being called to do. Years passed away while she sat with her mother and sister, or attended dances and concerts or travelled to Europe. Nightingale became more angry and rebellious.
She offended her family and friends by refusing to marry several prominent men who wanted to marry her. By the time she was 24, she had decided to be a nurse. But how did one become a nurse? At that time, the profession didn’t seem promising. The only respectable nurses were those women in religious orders that ministered to the patient’s spiritual health, but were not trained in medicine. The majority of nurses were poor, untrained women who were suspected of being too fond of men or alcohol, or both. In fact, one hospital preferred to hire unwed mothers as nurses because they had no reputations to lose.
Nightingale’s family was horrified by her plans. Their opposition delayed her plans but could not stop them. In 1850 she visited a hospital in Germany for the first time. In 1853, she was appointed superintendent of a women’s nursing home in London. But, Florence was still waiting for her true calling. In 1855, the Times of London was printing reports from the Crimean War. France and England were fighting Russia in the Crimean Peninsula. After one allied victory, the wounded French soldiers were well taken care of, but the wounded English soldiers were left to die. Back in England there was a public outcry.
It was Florence’s opportunity. She was soon on her way to Istanbul, Turkey, with 38 nurses. Scutari, Turkey, was the hospital where the British wounded were brought. This so-called hospital was a death pit, where 42 out of every 100 men died. The army was unwilling to listen to Miss Nightingale or to let her tend the wounded. She had to wait until conditions became so bad that the regular medical officers were overwhelmed. As soon as the army turned to her, she immediately went to work. She had the entire hospital cleaned, a new kitchen set up, and a good water supply obtained.
The death rate dropped to 22 out of every 1,000. Nightingale became famous overnight. Although her efforts in the Crimean War injured her health, she continued her work back in London. She published a 1,000-page report on medical conditions in the British Army, several books on nursing and her own proposals and suggestions. She also set up a training school for nurses. Long before her death in 1910, she had seen nursing become a well-established profession. Almost single-handedly she had helped to bring about proper treatment of the sick and injured.