Florence Nightingale was born in Florence in 1820. During her early life she and her sister were educated by a governess. Later, her father took over their education. Florence enjoyed education and could read and speak latin. She also developed a love of mathematics and later taught mathematics to younger children.
Florence was a strong and outspoken young woman. She firmly believed that God had chosen her for a special purpose but she did not know what that purpose was.
During the 1840s Florence Nightingale developed an interest in the social conditions of people and expressed a wish to work in a hospital as a nurse. However, her family were firmly against the idea – nursing was not considered a suitable occupation for a well-educated woman. At this time nurses were thought of as coarse ignorant women who were frequently drunk.
Returning home from a tour of Europe with friends where she had had the chance to study different hospitals, Florence, against her family’s wishes began her training as a nurse in a hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. She returned to London in 1853 and took an unpaid position as superintendent at the Establishment for Gentlewomen during Illness.
In March 1854 Britain, France and Turkey declared war on Russia and the Crimean war began. In September 1854 the Times newspaper published an article criticising the medical facilities. Shortly after this Florence received a letter from a friend inviting her to become Superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the English General Hospitals in Turkey. Her main aim was to introduce nurses into military hospitals. In November 1854, Nightingale arrived in Scutari with 38 nurses.
... her zeal, her devotion, and her perseverance would yield to no rebuff and to no difficulty. She went steadily and unwearyingly about her work with a judgement, a self-sacrifice, a courage, a tender sympathy, and withal a quiet and unostentatious demeanour that won the hearts of all who were not prevented by official prejudices from appreciating the nobility of her work and character.
Because she was a female, Florence found that she had to fight the military authorities every step of the way in her quest to reform the military hospitals.
The conditions in the hospitals were poor. Injured men frequently had to lie on the floor, which was dirty and alive with vermin. Operations were performed in unhygienic conditions. It is not surprising that more men died from typhus and cholera than from their injuries.
Florence used her mathematical skills to collect data, record statistics and make calculations. Her results showed that the mortality rate of patients would improve if sanitation were improved.
By February 1855 the mortality rate had fallen from 60% to 42%. Nightingale established a fresh water supply and brought fresh fruit and vegetables for the men out of her own money. By spring 1855, the mortality rate had dropped to 2.2%.
This is Nightingale’s Polar area diagram which she used to record the statistical data she collected.
The area of each coloured wedge, measured from the centre as a common point, is in proportion to the statistic it represents. The blue outer wedges represent the deaths from contagious diseases such as cholera and typhus. The central red wedges show the deaths from wounds. The black wedges in between represent deaths from all other causes. Deaths in the British field hospitals reached a peak during January 1855, when 2,761 soldiers died of contagious diseases, 83 from wounds and 324 from other causes making a total of 3,168. The army's average manpower for that month was 32,393. Using this information, Nightingale computed a mortality rate of 1,174 per 1,000 with 1,023 per 1,000 being from zymotic diseases
If this rate had continued, and troops had not been replaced frequently, then disease alone would have killed the entire British army in the Crimea.
When she returned to England after the end of the war, Nightingale discovered that the mortality rate for soldiers being treated in military hospitals during peacetime was double that of civilians. Using her statistics, Florence pressed a need for reform in all military hospitals. In May 1857 a Royal Commission on the Health of the Army was set up to investigate military hospitals.
While she had been stationed in the Crimea, people had donated money to help Nightingale in her quest for improvements. In 1860, Florence used this money to establish the Nightingale Training School and Home for Nurses based at St Thomas' Hospital in London. It opened with 10 students, the first of many to follow who would benefit from Nightingale’s principles that: firstly, nurses should have practical training in hospitals specially organised for that purpose and secondly that nurses should live in a home fit to form a moral life and discipline – thus making nursing a suitable career for respectable women.
Florence Nightingale acted as government advisor on army medical care in Canada and also advised the US government on army medical care during the Civil War.
Although for much of her later life Florence was bedridden due to an illness she had contracted in the Crimea, she continued her work to improve standards of hygiene in hospitals by publishing over 200 books and pamphlets. Notes on Nursing (1860) was the first textbook written specifically for the training of nurses and was published in many different languages.
In 1883 Florence Nightingale was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her work and in 1907 she became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit.