Sufficiently immortal in England’s history to appear in 1066 And All That under the comic names of ‘Florence MacNightingown’ and even ‘Florence MacNightshade’, she was the founder of nursing as a profession for women. Though as a member of a prosperous family she had no need to work, it was her own money and her religion mixed with an innate toughness that gave her the vocation to tend the sick. She was also a pioneer, if you like, of the feminist idea of breaking away from the constraints of Victorian family existence and carving out her own career.
Her grand opportunity came when newspaper reports of conditions for British soldiers during the Crimean War (1850s q.v.) horrified Britain. The mortality rate among the wounded and sick was distressingly high, and bad nursing or lack of any nursing were the principle causes. Military doctors only just had time to do essential repairs, but pre-med and after-med hardly existed.
Florence, helped by good family connections with War Secretary Sidney Herbert, sailed off in 1854 to Scutari, where she found hospitals infested with rats and other vermin, non-existent sanitation, and an almost total shortage of beds, linen and medicines. Exerting her considerable will-power she nagged and pestered until she was put in charge of nursing the sick soldiers.
First she had to overcome the natural hostility of the doctors themselves, who could not bear the sight of a lady surrounded by the rude soldiery, whom she treated clothed or naked. She showed extraordinary courage, determination and will-power, not being in the least impressed either by bullying doctors, angry generals or hard-swearing soldiers in pain. If necessary she used her own money to pay for medical supplies such as bandages, medicines and chloroform. She was treated by the patients as a mixture of Mother, Saint, Headmistress and Matron, but the last word describes her better than the previous three. In fact she was idolized by the troops, who called her ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ as she moved about on her night rounds accompanied by other nurses, mostly young women from the middle and upper classes who wished to follow her example. More arrived with each ship.
After the war she returned home to Britain as a nationally revered heroine. She set up a public subscription using her famous name, and was soon able to use the resulting fortune to set up the Nightingale School for Nursing at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, the first of its kind in the world; it was rapidly copied.
There was a price to pay for her shattering hard work among the sick, dying and wounded. Her mind had been permanently affected by the horrors, and she suffered from psychosomatic illnesses for the rest of her life, a very great deal of which she had to spend in bed. She was not forgotten, though she had disappeared from public life. In 1907 at the age of eighty-seven she became the first woman to receive the Order of Merit (OM) which made her a Dame. She died three years later.