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The Founding Mother of the Nursing Profession: Florence Nightingale

National Nurses WeekThe second week of May is National Nurses Week.  The week recognizes the contributions to the quality of our lives brought by those engaged in the caring and compassionate profession of nursing.

Nursing was recognized as a profession in its own right due to the hard work of many women, aptly described as Founding Mothers. Any consideration of the Founding Mothers of professional nursing must start with Florence Nightingale.

Florence NightingaleFlorence Nightingale was British, born May 12, 1820[i] and named after the city of her birth, Florence, Italy.  While not of nobility, her family might be referred to as landed gentry, her father was heir to two English estates.  Fans of Downton Abbey may understand the strict class and societal expectations in 19th Century England and when Florence turned down a marriage proposal from an appropriate suitor, to pursue a career in health care, her family was aghast.  Nursing was simply not appropriate.

Florence was not to be dissuaded, and following her heart she studied with a German religious community that provided services to the sick and poor. Following that experience she returned to London and took a position with the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen. That would prepare Nightingale for her rise to prominence.

Florence Nightingale in the War HospitalIn 1854, she brought a team of 38 volunteers to care for British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War. When they arrived at the military hospital in Scutari (part of present day Istanbul) they found soldiers in horrifying sanitary conditions, wounded and dying. Ten times more soldiers were dying of diseases such as typhus, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery than from battle wounds.  The soldiers were poorly cared for, medicines and other essentials were in short supply, hygiene was neglected, and infections were rampant. Nightingale found no clean linen; the clothes of the soldiers were swarming with bugs, lice, and fleas; the floors, walls, and ceilings were filthy. Rats were hiding under the beds. There were no towels, basins, or soap, and only 14 baths for approximately 2000 soldiers. The death rate was the highest of all hospitals in the region.

Nightingale worked tirelessly to improve the hospital conditions and the soldiers’ survival rate improved dramatically. The improvement resulted from Nightingale’s ability to lead, organize and to get things done. These are qualities I’ve come to know in the modern nurse during my marriage of 27 years.

Beyond her work on hospital conditions, Nightingale cared personally for the soldiers, making rounds during the night after the medical officers had retired. She became known as “the Lady with the Lamp,” and the London Times referred to her as a “ministering angel”.

Despite military officers that considered her unfeminine and a nuisance, she carried on her work and confront those officers she considered incompetent.

Nightingale’s experience in the Crimean War would soon be applied to civilian public health. In 1860, Nightingale laid the foundation of professional nursing with the establishment of her nursing school at St Thomas Hospital in London. It was the first secular nursing school in the world, now part of King’s College in London. She would go on to contribute to hospital design, including arranging wards around the nursing station, a design adopted around the world. Over 150 years later, the lessons she learned during the Crimean War remain part of modern life.

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[i] It is Ms. Nightingale’s birthday that marks the midpoint of National Nurses Week.

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