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11 May 2018

Florence Nightingale, the First Professional Nurse

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In the rigid Victorian society of the time, and in the bosom of a well-off British family in which the role of women was limited to their social life, the young Florence Nightingale was clear that she wanted to be a nurse. A chance event would allow her to fulfil her dream. She faced down her family and the canons of the time, and ended up becoming the first professional nurse, improving the care of the wounded in the Crimean War and popularizing the training of women in this new profession.

Born on 12 May 1820, her name comes from the Italian city of Florence, where her parents and sister were living when she came into the world. The following year, the family moved to the county of Derbyshire (United Kingdom). There, at age seventeen and after having a mystical experience—according to a private note—her vocation for nursing came to her, but her parents objected because they claimed that women of her social class should not work.

Bored with her monotonous life, she had to wait until she was thirty to fulfil her dream. The opportunity was provided in 1849 by a cultural tour of Egypt and Greece. On the return home, Nightingale and the rest of the travellers stopped in the German region of Kaiserwerth, where there was a hospital, orphanage and school. Despite the strong opposition of her family, the young woman returned to Kaiserwerth to train as a nurse, a decision that would change her life.

Florence Nightingale tending to wounded soldiers. Source: National Library of Medicine

After visiting different European hospitals to complete her training, Nightingale obtained her first job in 1853 as superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London (United Kingdom). A few months later, Sidney Herbert, Secretary of State for War, in an unprecedented decision, asked her to go to the Crimea to lead a team of nurses to care for the wounded in the conflict that had just erupted.

The caregivers in Crimea

What they found when they arrived at the hospital in Scutari—the current Turkish city of Üsküdar—where the wounded British were being treated, was Dantesque. The wounded were lying in the corridors, rain poured through the roof, the food was grim, there was barely any potable water, the facilities were overflowing with parasites and the general filthiness multiplied the cases of diarrhoea.

Nightingale and her team worked hard on the clean up and on the diet that the patients had to follow. In addition, with the authority that being the director gave her, she got the military engineers to fix the leaks in the potable water supply and improve its purification.

Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari, a portrait by Jerry Barrett. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Londres.

With regard to the care of patients, her attention was key to their survival. Her long nocturnal walks, illuminated by a small lamp, to check on the condition of the wounded soldiers, earned her the nickname of the “Lady with the Lamp,” as described by The Times.

All these actions earned her an excellent reputation in the United Kingdom. Upon her return, a group of followers had created the Nightingale Fund to build a nursing school, which opened in 1860. Today the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery is still operational and is part of King’s College London.

Promoter of the Red Cross

In addition to caring for the sick, Nightingale mastered the administrative tasks thanks to her ability with numbers. In fact, when Queen Victoria asked for a report on the poor sanitary conditions of the hospital facilities in the Crimea, the nurse included the rose diagram, a graphic representation that she had devised to illustrate the causes of mortality of the soldiers.


Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the East, by Florence Nightingale. Credit: Florence Nightingale.

She wrote numerous books and reports on nursing as a profession, among which Notes on Nursing (1860) stands out. In 1883, the Queen awarded her the Royal Red Cross and she was the first woman to receive the Order of Merit in 1907. She died at her home in London on 13 August 1910 and a crowd of people accompanied her coffin in appreciation of a life dedicated to the infirm.

Her work was so influential that in 1870 the British Red Cross was created. In fact, the International Committee of the body annually awards the Florence Nightingale medal to exceptional nurses. In order to graduate, these professionals continue to intone the oath that bears her last name.

Her life and her legacy have been portrayed in theatre, cinema and on television. In her honour, the International Day of Nursing is celebrated every twelfth of May, coinciding with her birth date.


Laura Chaparro

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