Section of the Crimean War memorial. Click on the image for a larger view.

Florence Nightingale was born on 12 May 1820 at the Villa La Columbaia in Florence; she was named after the city of her birth. Her father, William Edward Nightingale (1794-1874), was son of William Shore, a Sheffield banker. When Nightingale came of age on 21 February 1815 he inherited the Derbyshire estates at Lea Hurst and Woodend in Derbyshire from, and assumed the surname of Peter Nightingale, his mother's uncle. On 1 June 1818 he married Frances Smith, a strong supporter of the abolition of slavery. They had two daughters, Parthenope and Florence. "Parthe" was given the classical name of Naples where she was born.

Florence Nightingale was brought up at Lea Hall; in 1825 the family moved to Lea Hurst which Nightingale had just built. In 1826 he also bought Embley Park, in Hampshire and in1828 he became High Sheriff of the county. The family invariably spent the summer at Lea Hurst and the winter at Embley Park, occasionally visiting London. Florence Nightingale had a broad education and came to dislike the lack of opportunity for females in her social circle. She began to visit the poor but became very interested in looking after those who were ill. She visited hospitals in London and around the country to investigate possible occupations for women there. However, nursing was seen as employment that needed neither study nor intelligence; nurses were considered to be little less than prostitutes at that time.

Nightingale's hospital visits began in 1844 and continued for eleven years. She spent the winter and spring of 1849-50 in Egypt with family friends; on the journey from Paris she met two St. Vincent de Paul sisters who gave her an introduction to their convent at Alexandria. Nightingale saw that the disciplined and well-organised Sisters made better nurses than women in England. Between 31 July to 13 August 1850, Nightingale made her first visit to the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth. The institute had been founded for the care of the destitute in 1833 and had grown into a training school for women teachers and nurses. Her visit convinced Nightingale of the possibilities of making nursing a vocation for ladies. In 1851 she spent four months at Kaiserswerth, training as a sick nurse. When she returned home, she undertook more visits to London hospitals; in the autumn of 1852 she inspected hospitals in Edinburgh and Dublin. In 1853 she accepted her first administrative post when she became superintendent of the Hospital for Invalid Gentlewomen.

Barrett's Florence Nightingale Receiving the Wounded at Scutari

Florence Nightingale Receiving the Wounded at Scutari — 1856 — The Mission of Mercy by Jerry Barrett. Click on thumbnail for larger picture.

In March 1854 the Crimean War broke out and the reports of the sufferings of the sick and wounded in the English camps created anger in Britain. William Russell, The Times' correspondent, described the terrible neglect of the wounded, and pointed to the differences between the facilities provided for British and French soldiers. He asked: ‘Are there no devoted women among us, able and willing to go forth to minister to the sick and suffering soldiers of the East in the hospitals of Scutari? Are none of the daughters of England, at this extreme hour of need, ready for such a work of mercy? Must we fall so far below the French in self-sacrifice and devotedness?’ (The Times, 15 and 22 September 1854).

Nightingale offered her services to the War Office on 14 October but her friend Sidney Herbert — the Secretary for War — already had written to her, suggesting that she should go out to the Crimea. Herbert said that she would 'have plenary authority over all the nurses and ... the fullest assistance and co-operation from the medical staff'. He also promised 'unlimited power of drawing on the government for whatever you think requisite for the success of your mission'.

Nightingale embarked for the Crimea on 21 October with thirty-eight nurses: ten Roman Catholic Sisters, eight Anglican Sisters of Mercy, six nurses from St. John's Institute, and fourteen from various hospitals; Mr. and Mrs. Bracebridge, also went with her. Nightingale refused the offer of service by Mary Seacole. They reached Scutari on 4 November — the eve of the battle of Inkerman. Nightingale's official title was ‘Superintendent of the Female Nurses in the Hospitals in the East’; but she came to be known generally as ‘The Lady-in-Chief.’

Florence Nightingale [in hospital, advising] by Arthur George Walker, R.A. 1861-1936. Bronze. Part of the Crimean War Memorial located at the junction of Lower Regent Street and Pall Mall, London.

Her headquarters were in the barrack hospital at Scutari, a huge, filthy place where infection was rife. Stores had not got beyond Varna or had been lost at sea. Descriptions from Nightingale and her nurses give some idea of the conditions there:

There were no vessels for water or utensils of any kind; no soap, towels, or clothes, no hospital clothes; the men lying in their uniforms, stiff with gore and covered with filth to a degree and of a kind no one could write about; their persons covered with vermin . . .

We have not seen a drop of milk, and the bread is extremely sour. The butter is most filthy; it is Irish butter in a state of decomposition; and the meat is more like moist leather than food. Potatoes we are waiting for, until they arrive from France . . .

The military and medical authorities at Scutari viewed Nightingale's intervention as a reflection on themselves. Many of her own volunteers were inexperienced, and the behaviour of the orderlies was offensive to the women. However, before the end of 1854, Nightingale and her nurses had brought the Scutari hospital into better order. The relief fund organised by The Times sent out stores; other voluntary associations at home were helpful. In December forty-six more nurses went to the Crimea. Nightingale quickly established a vast kitchen and a laundry; she looked after the soldiers' wives and children, and to provided daily necessities for them. She was on her feet for twenty hours a day and her nurses were also overworked; however, she was the only woman whom she allowed to be in the wards after eight at night, when the other nurses' places were taken by orderlies. The wounded men called her ‘The Lady of the Lamp.’ Longfellow tried to express the feelings for Nightingale in his poem, Santa Filomena.

Florence Nightingale [[at hospital door as wounded soldiers arrive] by Arthur George Walker, R.A. 1861-1936. Bronze. Part of the Crimean War Memorial located at the junction of Lower Regent Street and Pall Mall, London.

Early in 1855, because of the defects in the sanitation system, there was a great increase in the number of cases of cholera and of typhus fever among Nightingale's patients. Seven of the army doctors and three of the nurses died. Frost-bite and dysentery from exposure in the trenches before Sevastopol made the wards fuller than before. There were over 2000 sick and wounded in the hospital and in February 1855 the death-rate rose to 42%. The War Office ordered the sanitary commissioners at Scutari to carry out sanitary reforms immediately, after which the death-rate declined rapidly until in June it had fallen to 2%.

In May 1855 Nightingale visited the hospitals at and near Balaclava along with Mr. Bracebridge and Alexis Soyer. Nightingale fell ill from Crimean fever and she was dangerously ill for twelve days. Early in June she returned to Scutari and resumed her work there. In addition to her nursing work she tried to provide reading and recreation rooms for the men and their families. In March 1856 she returned to Balaclava and remained there until July when the hospitals were closed. She returned to England privately in August 1856, in a French ship. She entered England unnoticed and went home to Lea Hurst.

In September 1856 Nightingale visited Queen Victoria at Balmoral and told the Queen and Prince Albert about everything that 'affects our present military hospital system and the reforms that are needed'. In November 1855 a Nightingale fund had been set up to found a training school for nurses. This was the only recognition of her services of which Nightingale would approve. By 1860, £50,000 had been collected and the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses was established at St. Thomas's Hospital. Nightingale's health and other occupations prevented her from accepting the post of superintendent but she watched the progress of the new institution with practical interest. She was able to use her experiences in the Crimea for the benefit of the nursing profession.

She settled in London and lived the retired life of an invalid, although she spent a great deal of time offering advice and encouragement through her writing and also verbally. In 1857 she issued an exhaustive and confidential report on the workings of the army medical departments in the Crimea and in 1858 she published Notes on Matters affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army. In 1858 a Commission was appointed to inquire into the sanitary condition of the army: it set a high value on her evidence. In 1859 an army medical college was opened at Chatham and the first military hospital was established in Woolwich in 1861. During the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 her advice was sought by the respective governments. Nightingale was involved in establishing the East London Nursing Society (1868), the Workhouse Nursing Association and National Society for providing Trained Nurses for the Poor (1874) and the Queen's Jubilee Nursing Institute (1890).

When the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857 Nightingale offered to leave for India immediately if there was anything she could do. Her services were not required but she became interested in the sanitary condition of the army and people there. From her work, a Sanitary Department was established in the Indian government. She became familiar with many facets of Indian life and demanded that there should be improvements in health and sanitation there. She did not visit India. She wrote papers on the causes of famine, the need of irrigation and the poverty of the people of India. In 1890 she contributed a paper on village sanitation in India. Her book, Notes on Nursing first appeared in 1860 and was reprinted many times during in her lifetime.

She received was the Order of Merit in 1907 and in 1908 she was awarded the Freedom of the City of London. She had already received the German order of the Cross of Merit and the French gold medal of Secours aux Blessés Militaires. On 10 May 1910 she was presented with the badge of honour of the Norwegian Red Cross Society. Nightingale died in South Street, Park Lane, London, on 13 August 1910 at the age of ninety and was buried on 20 August in the family plot at East Wellow, Hampshire. An offer of burial in Westminster Abbey was refused by her relatives. Memorial services took place in St. Paul's Cathedral and Liverpool Cathedral, among many other places.

Related Material

Further Reading [GPL]

Bostridge, Mark. Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.

Larsen, Timothy. "St. Flo." Books and Culture: A Christian Review 14 (November-December 2008): 16-17. [Review of recent editions and biographies]

"Her commemoration in the Church of England calendar (on August 13), makes her as close to a Protestant can get to being officially recognized as a saint."

Nightingale, Florence. The Collected Works. Ed. Lynn MacDonald. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2001-. The edition will eventually 19 volumes. The first volume contains an introduction to her life and works, the next two her Bible annotations, sermons, and other material related to her Broad Church religious beliefs.


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Last modified 3 January 2012