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Who was Florence Nightingale?

We all remember learning about Florence Nightingale in nursing school. One of my professors in school called her “the mother of nursing.”  We learned about her contributions to nursing, but we didn’t study too much about her life. So today, as we celebrate her 204th birthday, and the last day of Nurses Week, let’s open our nursing history books and learn more about Florence Nightingale.


Early Life

Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820, in Florence, Italy, and she was the younger of two children. She was born in Italy while her English parents were traveling, and she was named after the city where she was born. She was born into a well-off British family with a high social status. Her father, William Shore Nightingale, was an English landowner, and her mother, Frances Nightingale, came from a family of merchants and enjoyed socializing with others of prominent social status.  Frances wanted her daughter to socialize as well, but Florence was awkward in social situations and wanted to stay out of the limelight.  She preferred, instead, to lay low, and from a young age would take care of the ill and poor who lived in the village neighboring her family’s English estate. It was from this experience that Florence decided to pursue her calling to be a nurse.  This displeased her parents however, because nursing was seen as demeaning and menial work that was only for the lower-class. Her parents forbade her to go to nursing school, insisting that she marry a man of similar class. She turned down an engagement offer, defied her parents, and headed to Germany to enroll as a nursing student at Lutheran Hospital of Pastor Fliedner in Dusseldorf, Germany.


After graduating nursing school, Florence returned to London to take her first nursing job in a Middlesex hospital for sick governesses. Her performance was so impressive that within a year of being a nurse, she was promoted to the superintendent, or head nurse, of the hospital. While in this role, Florence dealt with the challenges of a cholera outbreak and unsanitary conditions that rapidly spread disease. “Florence made it her mission to improve hygiene practices, significantly lowering the death rate at the hospital in the process.” (source)

 The Crimean War

Her role as superintendent took a toll on her health, but it also prepared her for yet another challenge. In October of 1853, the Crimean War broke out and many British soldiers were sent to fight. During the war, the press publicized the understaffing and unsanitary conditions the wounded soldiers were enduring at military hospitals. Men were getting sick and dying at alarming numbers. In 1854, after hearing of Florence’s work at her hospital in London, she received a letter from Secretary of War Sydney Herbert. He asked for her help in organizing a group of nurses to go take care of the injured men. She assembled a team of 34 nurses from various religious orders and headed to Crimea.


When she arrived, she discovered that the military hospital had been built on a cesspool, which contaminated the water and the building. Contaminated water was being used for cooking and for cleaning the injured as well. She saw firsthand the inhumane conditions of the sick and wounded at the hospital. Patients on stretchers laying in their own excrement, rodents and bugs everywhere, and the most basic supplies, like bandages and soap were scarce. More soldiers were dying from infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera than from the injuries they sustained on the battlefield. 


Florence and her team immediately went to work. First, they cleaned the entire hospital from top to bottom. She roamed the infirmary at all hours, day and night, carrying her lamp and caring for the sick and wounded. She ensured that the wounded soldiers had clean water and healthy food to eat. She also had sheets and bandages laundered every day. The men greatly enjoyed her compassion and dubbed her “The Lady with the Lamp” or “The Angel of Crimea”. During her time in Crimea, she reduced the hospital’s death rate by two-thirds.


Her experiences as a nurse during the Crimean War were the foundation of her views on sanitation and for care the of humans. During her time in Crimea, she wrote an 830-page analysis of her experience, and she proposed many health care reforms for other hospitals (military and non) operating in similar conditions during the 19th and 20th centuries. After the war ended and she and her nursing crew came back to England, she was gifted many accolades from the British government and monarch for her work during the war. She received $250,000 which she used to establish St. Thomas Hospital and Nightingale Training School for Nurses in 1860. Women of all classes wanted to be like Florence and nursing was no longer deemed menial. Many young women were inspired by her and quickly signed up to attend her nursing program.


When she was 38 years old, Florence contracted “Crimean fever” and would never fully recover. The disease caused her to be bedridden and homebound for the rest of her life. But that didn’t stop her from continuing to teach and improve health care for the sick and suffering. She worked from her bed. You might even consider her the first remote worker! She would continue to talk to nurses who were on the frontline caring for patients so that she could understand what was going on in the hospitals. She wrote papers and publications on how to properly care for patients and how to run hospitals. Florence was also consulted by the U.S. military during the Civil War for advice on how to manage military hospitals after they heard how she had run the British hospital in Crimea. She was seen as an authority on sanitation both for the military and the general public.


In August of 1910, she fell ill but seemed to recover. However, on August 12, 1910, she developed concerning symptoms and then the pioneer of modern nursing died unexpectedly on August 13, 1910, at her home in London.  


Many of Florence’s teachings carry on today. While all are important, caring for the human is the greatest lesson she taught all of us. And while it has been edited over the years, I want to end this article with the Nightingale Pledge, not only as an ode to Florence but also as a reminder to all nurses about why we do what we do.

The Nightingale Pledge


Before God and those assembled here, I solemnly pledge; To adhere to the code of ethics of the nursing profession; To co-operate faithfully with the other members of the nursing team and to carry out faithfully and to the best of my ability the instructions of the physician or the nurse who may be assigned to supervise my work; I will not do anything evil or malicious, and I will not knowingly give any harmful drug or assist in malpractice. I will not reveal any confidential information that may come to my knowledge in the course of my work. And I pledge myself to do all in my power to raise the standards and prestige of practical nursing; May my life be devoted to service and to the high ideals of the nursing profession.

Florence Nightingale made a difference. YOU are making a difference. Nurses make a difference.

Happy Nurses Week,


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