By the time she was forty, British social reformer, mathematician, and statistician Florence Nightingale (May 12, 1820 – August 13, 1910) was the second most influential woman in England, after only Queen Victoria.
Nightingale pioneered modern nursing during her time serving as a volunteer nurse in the Crimean War, where she became known as “The Lady with the Lamp” for her nightly visits with the wounded in the wards. In 1854, John MacDonald, commissioner of the Times Crimea Fund, described these midnight vigils memorably:
Wherever there is disease in its most dangerous form and the hand of the despoiler distressingly nigh, there is that incomparable woman sure to be seen. Her benignant presence is an influence for good comfort, even amid the struggles of expiring nature. She is a “ministering angel” without any exaggeration in these hospitals, and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every poor fellow’s face softens with gratitude at the sight of her. When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.
Nightingale’s relentless advocacy brought government attention to the horrific conditions of the wounded. With her staff of 38 women volunteers she had trained as nurses, she worked to dramatically reduce death rates in the clinics. Once the war ended, she returned to Britain and applied her wartime insights to revolutionizing the sanitary design of hospitals. Public recognition of her work during the war led to the establishment of the Nightingale Fund, dedicated to training nurses. In 1860, she used the £45,000 from the fund to found the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’s Hospital, which became the first official nurses training program in the world. By 1865, Nightingale’s first class of trained nurses had entered the workhouse system in England and Scotland — a revolutionary development in healthcare. By the 1880s, a number of her nurses had become matrons of leading hospitals across the United Kingdom.
Straddling both the practical and the theoretical, Nightingale also authored numerous books and papers on nursing and healthcare reform, including her seminal 1860 book Notes on Nursing, in addition to more subtle meditations on feminism and women’s emancipation, like her essay "Cassandra," critiquing culture’s tendency to align feminine ideals with idleness and near-helplessness.
With a strong inclination for mathematics and statistics, she also pioneered the use of graphical representations at a time when the pie chart, so tediously ubiquitous today, was a curious novelty that hardly any scientists and journalists used for presenting statistical information.
Underpinning all of Nightingale’s endeavors was her tireless hunger for progress and the betterment of life’s challenging givens. In an 1884 letter to her sister Parthenope, she encapsulated her the impetus at the core of her spirit:
What is life? It cannot be merely a gaining of experience — it is freedom, voluntary force, free-will, & therefore must be a hard fought battle — in order to make a choice, there must be evil & good to choose from.
Nightingale declined several marriage overs and never wed nor had a public relationship. While some biographers have painted her as a sexless do-gooder who remained chaste her entire life due to a religious calling to her work, it is quite possible that she was a queer woman who either never identified as such under the cultural and religious constraints of her era, or only did so in private — she frequently referred to herself in the third-person masculine, using such phrases as “a man of action” and “a man of business” called to “a man’s work.” She once wrote of her cousin, Marianne Nicholson:
I have never loved but one person with passion in my life, and that was her.
In 1837, she met Mary “Clarkey” Clarke — an Englishwoman twenty-seven years her senior, who went on to become the single most important confidante in Nightingale’s life and with whom she exchanged hundreds of letters over the decades that followed.
In 1883, Queen Victoria awarded Nightingale the Royal Red Cross. In 1907, at age eighty-seven, Nightingale became the first woman to receive the Order of Merit. In 1912, the International Red Cross instituted the Florence Nightingale Medal, bestowed upon nurses or nursing aides for outstanding service. Since 1965, International Nurses Day has been celebrated around the world on Nightingale’s birthday.
Learn more: Florence Nightingale Museum | Wikipedia | Ever Yours, Florence Nightingale: Selected Letters