Florence Nightingale — The First Supernurse

Every nurse knows of Florence Nightingale. Every person should know her story.

Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale was an instrumental figure in showing the value of nursing and turning the profession from a job for the lowly to a reputable career for a man or woman of any background. Her story begins with a defiant young girl in 19th century Italy.

Born into a wealthy family, Nightingale’s life path was shaping up to be a familiar story for the time; marry a rich man with a lot of land, and preserve your family status. But, Nightingale was not one to settle for the status quo.

From a young age, she believed it was her divine calling to help others. She was frequently reprimanded by her mother for leaving the family estate to tend to the sick and poor in the surrounding villages. When she revealed her intentions to pursue a career in nursing, her parents scoffed unaware of the revolutionary changes she would bring to the field.

After refusing a marriage proposal, she packed her bags and enrolled as a nursing student at the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses in Kaiserswerk, Germany. From there, she volunteered at hospitals throughout London, earning praise from fellow medical professionals and building a reputation as a pioneer.

The start of the Crimean War in 1853 marked the worst year for British war hospitals to date. As the outraged public reacted to the disgraceful conditions provided for their soldiers, the government knew they must act. In 1854, Secretary of War Sidney Herbert wrote a letter to Nightingale asking her to assemble a team to tend to the sick and fallen in Crimea. Her work in Crimea would transform her from highly regarded in her field to a national hero.

Upon her arrival at the Scuteri Hospital, Nightingale witnessed conditions she could never have imagined. Patients were strewn throughout the hallways, lying in their own filth and rodents and insects crawled across the floors and walls. With barely enough basic supplies to go around, thousands of soldiers were dying from diseases contracted within the hospital.

Nightingales first step was to clean and sanitize every inch of the hospital. Any soldier that wasn’t severely injured was given a brush and told to start scrubbing. While organizing and managing sanitation efforts, she continued dutifully tending to her patients and her midnight rounds earned her the nickname of Lady with the Lamp.

Without the work of Nightingale, the outcome of the war for Britain could have been very different. And they knew it. She and her corps of nurses saved many lives and without them, countless soldiers would have been decimated by disease.

Photo courtesy of National Museum of Health and Medicine

After a year and a half in Crimea, Nightingale’s work garnered praise and admiration nationally. Her efforts reduced the death rate by two-thirds, and set the standards for sanitation and hospital management. Returning home in 1856, she was greeted with a heroes welcome as many credited her for the success of the British Army. She was awarded an engraved brooch by the Queen of England along with a prize of $250,000.

That is equivalent to over $7,000,000 today.

The always humble Nightingale used the money to further her cause. She founded the St. Thomas Hospital and established the first ever school of nursing within the hospital, appropriately name the Nightingale Training School for Nurses.

Her return didn’t just mark the end of the war but also the creation of nursing as we know it. At that moment, nursing went from a menial profession to an honorable career.

The Nightingale Training School for Nurses was quickly flooded with women who wanted to follow in her footsteps. As a national hero, she inspired both the contemporary and future generations of caregivers.

Nightingale blazed the trail for all nurses to follow. Her big heart, hard nose, and sharp mind laid the foundation for what it means to be a good nurse. Her tenacity and compassion showed the world what nurses are capable of and the impact they have.

Today, International Nurses Day is celebrated on Nightingale’s birthday, May 12th. In honor of National Nurses Week and the Lady with the Lamp, let us reflect on her legacy and show appreciation for all of the nurses who are our superheroes everyday.