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Wednesday’s Women in STEM: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale, otherwise known as Lady with the Lamp, was born on May 12, 1820, in Italy, and died August 13, 1910, in London. Nightingale was a British nurse, statistician, and social reformer who was the foundational philosopher of modern nursing. Nightingale was put in charge of nursing British and allied soldiers in Turkey during the Crimean War. She spent many hours in the wards, and her night rounds giving personal care to the wounded established her image as the “Lady with the Lamp.” Her efforts to formalize nursing education led her to establish the first scientifically based nursing school—the Nightingale School of Nursing, at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, which opened in 1860. She also was instrumental in setting up training for midwives and nurses in workhouse infirmaries. She was the first woman awarded the Order of Merit in 1907 and International Nurses Day is now observed annually on May 12, to commemorate Nightingale’s birth and celebrate the importance of nurses in health care.

Nightingale enrolled at the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth in Germany and trained for two weeks in July 1850 and again for three months in July 1851. There she learned basic nursing skills, the importance of patient observation, and the value of good hospital organization. In 1853 Nightingale became the superintendent of the Institution for Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances, in London, where she successfully displayed her skills as an administrator by improving nursing care, working conditions, and efficiency of the hospital. After one year she began to realize that her services would be more valuable in an institution that would allow her to train nurses, therefore, she considered becoming the superintendent of nurses at King’s College Hospital in London. In October 1853, the Turkish Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia, following a series of disputes over the holy places in Jerusalem and Russian demands to exercise protection over the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman sultan. The British and the French, allies of Turkey, sought to curb Russian expansion. The majority of the Crimean War was fought on the Crimean Peninsula in Russia. However, the British troop base and hospitals for the care of the sick and wounded soldiers were primarily established in Scutari, across the Bosporus from Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. The status of the care of the wounded was reported to the London Times by the first modern war correspondent, British journalist William Howard Russell. The newspaper reports stated that soldiers were treated by an incompetent and ineffective medical establishment and that the most basic supplies were not available for care. The British public raised an outcry over the treatment of the soldiers and demanded that the situation be improved. Sidney Herbert, secretary of state at war for the British government, wrote to Nightingale requesting that she lead a group of nurses to Scutari.

At the same time, Nightingale wrote to her friend Liz Herbert, Sidney’s wife, asking that she be allowed to lead a private expedition. Their letters crossed in the mail, but in the end their mutual requests were granted. Nightingale led an officially sanctioned party of 38 women, departing October 21, 1854, and arriving in Scutari at the Barrack Hospital on November 5. Not welcomed by the medical officers, Nightingale found conditions filthy, supplies inadequate, staff uncooperative, and overcrowding severe. Few nurses had access to the cholera wards, and Nightingale, who wanted to gain the confidence of army surgeons by waiting for official military orders for assistance, kept her party from the wards. Five days after Nightingale’s arrival in Scutari, injured soldiers from the Battle of Balaklava and the Battle of Inkerman arrived and overwhelmed the facility. Nightingale said it was the “Kingdom of Hell.” In order to care for the soldiers properly, it was necessary that adequate supplies be obtained. Nightingale bought equipment with funds provided by the London Times and enlisted soldiers’ wives to assist with the laundry. The wards were cleaned and basic care was provided by the nurses. Most important, Nightingale established standards of care, requiring such basic necessities as bathing, clean clothing and dressings, and adequate food. Attention was given to psychological needs through assistance in writing letters to relatives and through providing educational and recreational activities. Nightingale herself wandered the wards at night, providing support to the patients. This noble act earned her the title of “Lady with the Lamp.”

She gained the respect of the soldiers and medical establishment alike. Her accomplishments in providing care and reportedly reducing the mortality rate to about 2 percent brought her fame in England through the press and the soldiers’ letters. In May 1855 Nightingale began the first of several excursions to Crimea; however, shortly after arriving, she fell ill with “Crimean fever”—most likely brucellosis, which she probably contracted from drinking contaminated milk. Nightingale experienced a slow recovery, as no active treatment was available. The lingering effects of the disease were to last for 25 years, frequently confining her to bed because of severe chronic pain. On March 30, 1856, the Treaty of Paris ended the Crimean War, but Nightingale remained in Scutari until the hospitals were ready to close, returning to her home in Derbyshire on August 7, 1856, as a reluctant heroine. Florence Nightingale will always be remembered as a selfless warrior who put her life on the front lines during the Crimean War and will be known as the creator of modern nursing.


BY: Tauba Ashrafi



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