The Woman Behind the Nursing Revolution: Florence Nightingale

On May 12, 1820, a girl was born to affluent British parents in Florence, Italy. Growing up as a member of “respectable society”, she was expected to follow the conventional route for someone with her status at the time, which included marrying well. To her parents’ chagrin, however, she was more interested in healing the sick than courting eligible young men, and she even rejected the “respectable” boy who proposed to her. Worse than that, she loved math, which displeased her parents the most. She was Florence Nightingale: the “Lady with the Lamp,” a famous nurse in the Crimean War, and—perhaps most notably— a mathematician.

From a young age, Nightingale loved learning. She and her sister didn’t attend school; they were taught by governesses. Their father also taught them classics and politics. Nightingale loved studying in general, but she was especially gifted in math. Her parents found this unacceptable and encouraged her to study more “ladylike” subjects.

However, Nightingale didn’t back down. She persuaded her parents to let her study math with James Joseph Sylvester, an accomplished mathematician who made considerable strides in algebra, most significantly in the fundamentals of matrices.

Alan Finkel, Chief Scientist of Australia, said of Nightingale, “she demanded from her parents the support to raise herself to something higher: something that would make it possible to participate fully in life.”

Her interest in math, particularly statistics, ultimately served as her most useful skill in saving lives as a nurse. At age 25, Nightingale revealed to her parents her desire to become a nurse. In the 19th century, nursing was considered an immoral occupation; nurses were regarded as licentious and unskilled. Her parents were disappointed by her decision, and Nightingale had no choice but to study nursing abroad due to this opposition. Thus, she set off for Alexandria, Egypt in 1850, and trained at the Institute of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic facility. Later, she also studied in Dusseldorf, Germany, and Paris, France.

After three years of training, Nightingale returned to London. Her first foray into a nursing career was as the superintendent of the distinguished Establishment for Gentlewomen During Illness.

The year 1854 marked both the start of the Crimean War and an important chapter in Nightingale’s life. British Secretary of State Sidney Herbert hired Nightingale to work as the superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the English General Hospitals in Turkey. Nightingale then selected a team of 38 nurses to lead at Barrack Hospital in Scutari.

Conditions in Scutari were atrocious. Soldiers were deteriorating fast–and not just from bullets. Diseases accounted for more than half the death count; cholera and typhus spread like wildfire. Nightingale immediately began to ameliorate the situation. She ensured the soldiers had fruits and vegetables, for example. She also collected data on deaths at the hospital. Deaths rates dropped drastically with her improvements. Word of Nightingale’s achievements reached London, and she was given a nickname, “The Lady with the Lamp,” which alluded to the lamp she carried with her when she visited patients in the night.

However, all this work took a toll on Nightingale’s physical and emotional health. When she returned home in 1856, at age 36, her health was in jeopardy. But even as she recovered, she did not stop working. Using the statistics she gathered in Crimea, Nightingale made a case and raised awareness for the need for better sanitation in hospitals. Several influential people recognized her work, including the royals and the prime minister of England. Based on her research, these officials conducted a formal investigation.

Nightingale also established nursing schools at St. Thomas and King’s colleges with money donated in her name to the Nightingale Fund. She trained her nurses to live virtuous lives and worked hard to change the unfavorable stereotype of nurses.

In 1883, Queen Victoria named Nightingale the first recipient of the Royal Red Cross for her exceptional service and devotion as a military nurse. In 1910, Nightingale passed away at the age of 90.

Today, Nightingale’s legacy lives on. Her 200 published works are still used and referenced, and her training schools continue to flourish. Nightingale is a laudable figure in history known not only for her achievements in medicine but also for her refusal to let society determine her future.


[Sources: Women Who Changed the World; Huffpost;;]