FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE – PIONEERING WOMAN
by Dr. Lawrence Wilson
© March 2017, L.D. Wilson Consultants, Inc.
Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing, a leader of women, a prolific writer, and a social reformer. Her books and other writing are still widely read today. Her ideas still influence modern hospital design and social reform programs in many nations today.
Her picture has appeared on the English currency and on English postage stamps. The amazing story of her life has been the subject of a number of theatrical productions and television programs.
Born on May 12, 1820, Florence grew up in an upper middle-class English family and lived in London, England. From the time she was young, she loved reading, languages and history. Her parents realized she had great potential, but did not push her in any particular direction in life.
At age 16, she had the first of several “awakenings”. She says she was told she was born to help reduce suffering in the world. However, she was not told how she was to do this.
One day she realized that nursing would be a good career for her. She was less interested in marriage than many other girls her age, and nursing was a new career for women in Great Britain.
Her family thought nursing was below her “status” as a middle-class young woman. But she persisted in her desire, and finally her father sent her to a 2-week course in nursing in Germany. She did another two-week course and became a certified nurse. This was a very inadequate education, but it was all that was available at the time - about 150 years ago. Later on, she would drastically change all that!
There were few women nurses, as women were expected to stay home and not work outside the home. However, she was a pioneer and liked her work as a nurse, first in a women’s hospital and later in a men’s hospital. In those times, there were separate hospitals for men and women.
At her work, she quickly showed superior ability not only with nursing, but also to manage the hospital nursing program, motivate the nurses and patients, and improve their health outcomes. She was a planner, organizer and motivator!
At this time, about 1854, the Crimean War broke out. Word came back to London that wounded British soldiers were dying of infections at an alarming rate in the field hospitals. This greatly upset the people of England.
Florence was asked to organize a women’s nursing group and to take the dangerous voyage by ship during a war to the area of present-day Turkey. Besides the voyage, nursing in a war zone presented all sorts of dangers for women, in particlular. However, she promptly organized a group a group of nurses, bringing with her 38 women and about 15 Catholic nuns to help, as well.
When she first arrived, conditions were filthy at the field hospital. Food and supplies were also very low. She and her crew immediately set to work to remedy these problems.
In addition, Florence had specific ideas about medical care that were not the standard way of doing things. These would later make her famous. To reduce infections and improve hospital outcomes, she insisted the hospitals have lot of sunlight and fresh air at all times. The ultraviolet rays of the sun are far better than any antibiotic for killing most germs. She insisted that there be large windows for this purpose that face the sun, and that could be opened to allow in fresh air.
She also insisted that everyone wash the hands for two minutes before touching anyone or anything in the hospital, and that hands be washed with soap at least 10 times a day. These rules have now been adopted widely, but at the time they were revolutionary. She also insisted upon clean clothes, clean bedding and clean bandages. These might be called the natural methods of stopping infections. Sadly, some of these have been forgotten today in hospital design. Now often the windows are small, tinted, and do not open.
The military surgeons did not always agree with her, but she persisted, as she always did, in a gentle way, and soon won them over. Infection rates dropped significantly, and word got back to England about her success. Her intelligence and kind manner won her great admiration and respect.
She became known as the “Woman with the lamp”, partly because she would check all the soldiers in the evening with a kerosene lamp. However, the title was also a metaphor for the lady of light in a dark time.
Upon her return to England, Florence met with the Queen of England, and they soon became close friends. This friendship would last the rest of her life. Due to her position with the queen, she was able to institute reforms in the entire British hospital system. They were the same natural methods she had applied in Turkey, and they worked amazingly well to reduce infections and improve hospital outcomes.
Florence Nightengale’s hospital designs became a model for hospital construction and operation the world over. Her designs are still studied today. This was just one of her major accomplishments. Anyone living near Prescott, Arizona, USA can visit the Prescott Veterans Administration Hospital to view a facility based upon her design. However, there are many such facilities all over the Western world.
In 1860, Ms. Nightingale established the first full-fledged college of nursing in conjunction with St. Thomas Hospital in London. It was the first secular nursing school in the world, and is now part of King's College in London. It was and still is a leader in nursing education. Previous to the opening of this school, nursing had been a haphazard occupation with little formal training. Today, Ms. Nightengale’s birthday is celebrated in many nations as International Nurse’s Day.
In addition to her nursing work, Florence Nightengale was more than a friend to the Queen of England. She became one of the queen’s most trusted advisors in the area of women, children, families and society. In other words, she became a social well-being consultant
She instituted many programs in England to improve the health nutrition, sanitation and health care of the British people. Many were copied the world over. In fact, this work took up the rest of her life and was far more important than the nursing work for which she is well known.
Ms. Nightengale was also a prolific writer on many topics. Most of her writing is about teaching medical knowledge and nutritional concepts to doctors and laymen. She also wrote simple books for children on these topics.
Her other hobby was to write about such diverse topics as religion and esoteric sciences.
A LEADING WOMEN’S ADVOCATE
Ms. Nightengale’s achievements were all the more remarkable because at this time in Victorian England, women did not attend college and usually did not enter professions. They were expected to stay home and bear children.
Florence was fortunate in that her father made sure she received far more education than most English women or men. He had her learn Latin, Greek, Italian, history, many sciences, writing and mathematics.
She wrestled with many of the same issues that women today face – whether to marry, when to marry, whether to stay at home or work outside the home, and more. She inspired many women of her time, and still does so today, to leave behind what she called “the idle life”. Instead to use their brain and their bodies for service to humanity to better the condition of the world.
A PROLIFIC WRITER
Florence wrote over 200 books, pamphlets, stories and other educational materials. It is quite a remarkable writing career for anyone, let alone someone who was organizing a nursing school and conducting many other projects at the same time.
Florence Nightingale understood a lot about nutrition. She wrote a number of pamphlets and one book on the subject for doctors.
She also understood the unusual phenomenon of retracing, something that few people today understand. She had direct experience with it, and knew it was real.
She learned to look for retracing and healing reactions in her patients at the hospitals she worked at. This, she said, was evidence of deep healing and true regeneration of the body. This sounds exactly like a central theme of this website. For details, read Retracing And Healing Reactions.
This biography could go on for many pages. Indeed, others have written biographies about Florence’s long and productive life. I strongly suggest reading them for their content and for inspiration. A 1951 movie was made about her, and in 2010 the British Broadcasting Company did a documentary television program about her life. There is also a Florence Nightengale Museum in London, England. She died on August 13, 1910.