Florence Nightingale, the “Lady with the Light”

Who was Florence Nightingale? And why was she so inspirational?


Anvita Koneru, Journalist

Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820. She was named for the city she was born in – Florence, Italy. Even when Florence was a child, she wasn’t interested in the things that most Victorian girls at that time were expected to like (drawing, singing, dancing, sowing); she preferred to read about math & science, & liked to do puzzles. She was from a wealthy upper-class family, & had a sister named Parthenope (Parthe for short). Florence was very curious – she asked a lot of questions about everything, & liked to record/organize information that she learned. Florence also loved animals; she had 3 dogs named Peppercorn, Teazer, & Captain, & a pony named Peggie – however, Florence especially liked birds. She did charity work with her mother & sister, which involved taking care of the poor.

Though most girls their age weren’t educated past music & drawing, their father made sure they had the best education possible. Parthe was a typical girl at that time, who was interested in all the things girls were expected to do, but Florence was hungry to learn. She spent years & years cultivating her knowledge. When Florence was a teenager, she was a passionate reader like her father William. Florence also had a deep empathy for those in pain. This was around the time when she realized that she wanted to heal the sick & care for them. She practiced French, Italian, Greek, & Latin, which her father supported. Florence preferred to learn rather than be a perfect Victorian socialite like her mother & sister.

Florence had what was called a “gentleman’s education” at that time. She wanted to be of service to others. In 1837, there was a flu epidemic, & Florence tended to many. She then had a “Call from God” that told her to devote her life to help people & treat them. After this, Florence immersed herself in charity work – her mother often found her late at night tending to a sick person. People at that time considered nursing a profession equal to being a housemaid. Her parents wanted her to marry instead, but Florence knew this meant being expected to run a household full time, which would be the end of her dreams of nursing. When she asked her parents if she could study at a nearby nursing school, they straight out refused to let her, saying they wanted her to find a husband and start a family. For a long time, Florence felt lonely & misunderstood. So to cope, she studied everything she could about nursing.

 Florence heard about a training hospital in Kaiserswerth, Germany from a friend. She wanted to go there very badly, but she didn’t mention it to her parents. Finally, Florence made the executive decision that she would not get married. Without her parents’ consent, she went with her friends to the training hospital at Kaiserswerth, where she immediately felt at home & tirelessly tended to the people there. Finally, her family let her return to Kaiserswerth again, on the conditions that her mother & sister would accompany her there, (they would stay at a nearby spa) she would only stay for a few months, wouldn’t tell anyone, & return with her mother & sister. Florence worked very hard to care for the patients at the hospital, and taught some of the other nurses who hadn’t received as great of an education. Her mother felt a little more open to Florence’s training as a nurse and encouraged her to continue following her dream.

However, Turkey declaring war on Russia interrupted Florence’s plan. The British military had joined Turkey, and there wasn’t enough healthcare for the wounded and sick soldiers. Florence was reading up about the military hospital in Scutari called the “Barrack Hospital”. She wanted to help. But it was something no British woman had done before – would she be allowed? But Florence was, and she and 38 other nurses boarded the Vectis. When they arrived, there was already a dead body greeting them. Some of the male doctors refused to work with the women, feeling they were inferior in nursing and professional jobs. But the job became so hard, and there were so many people to take care of that they couldn’t refuse help from anyone. The nurses took care of the hospital itself as well as the patients. They worked 20 hours a day. Florence made sure that every nurse was up to scratch.

Florence created a new, high standard of hospital care, and trained other nurses to work to that standard as well. She soothed her patients day and night and made sure each of them was well cared for. A war reporter said that every patient’s face lit up when Florence came to check on them at night, her kind face smiling at them in the light of the lamp that she carried. They ran an article with an illustration (that would later become famous) of her making her rounds among the sick and holding her lamp. She became known as the “Lady with the Lamp”. Florence became a national hero in England after that. People raised money to donate for her cause, calling it the Nightingale Fund, which still exists to this day and helps pay for over 30 classes of nursing students. Florence regularly wrote to her family and told them about what it was like at the Barrack Hospital.

But when she was 35, she became sick with the Crimean fever, and the symptoms lasted Florence’s whole life. Even though she was bedridden, Florence dedicated the rest of her life to helping nurses and patients, and died a peaceful death at 90, raising money for hospitals till her final day. Florence had a private and quiet burial ceremony with her family, as she had requested, and lies next to her parents and sister, whom she had outlived. To this day, people and nurses all over the world honor Florence Nightingale for being a pioneer among women in the field of nursing, and for simply being unique and rebellious. She was an honest, kind, & good person who devoted her life to helping others during times of uncertainty, and when women were thought of as less than.