Saturday, August 10, 2013

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Florence Nightingale was named after the city she was born in on May 12, 1820. Her upper-class family returned to England the next year. In 1825 they moved into Embley Park: a rural mansion near the Channel city of Southampton and about 80 miles (140 km) southeast of London. Embley Park remained Florence's home for the rest of her long life. She was educated at home by her father who taught her several languages as well as philosophy, history, and mathematics.

In 1837 God called her to minister with marginal people. In 1844 she committed herself to doing so as a nurse. Her mother and sister strongly objected. Both felt the work demeaning because of its association with ignorant working-class women of dubious morals. They heartily believed that she should devote herself to making an advantageous marriage and raising successful children. Despite their opposition, she worked hard for years to master the field.

In 1849 Florence traveled to Egypt with friends. During the next year she kept a diary of her experiences and also regularly wrote letters to family and friends back in Britannia. “The letters,” Rosemary Mahoney observed, “revealed a keenly observant mind and an enormous range of knowledge. Nightingale was well-traveled before she went to Egypt, spoke several languages, and was astonishingly well read. She was adventuresome and passionate. She had, above all, a wicked sense of humor, which surprised and delighted me. Her characterizations were sharp, subtle, often comical. Her interests were many and various: artistic, philosophical, spiritual, and temporal” (Down the Nile).

In Thebes, God called her again and in Cairo asked if she would minister with marginal people even if she gained nothing from it. Before leaving Egypt in 1850, she worked with the nuns of St. Vincent de Paul in a hospital in Alexandria.

After Egypt she traveled to Kaiserswerth-am-Rhein (now part of Düsseldorf in today's Germany) and studied with Theodor Fliedner. Theodor, a Lutheran pastor, had seen the work of deacons among Mennonites in Indonesia and had spoken in Britannia with Elizabeth Fry about ministry with marginal people. Based on these experiences he had imagined and then opened a training hospital where poor people could receive treatment and women could be trained as nurses. Florence's studies there proved invaluable to her. She wrote about her experiences in her first published work, The Institution of Kaiserswerth on the Rhine, for the Practical Training of Deaconesses, etc. (1851).

In 1853 she got her first chance to apply her hard-won wisdom when she became the supervisor of a charity hospital in London.

Florence met Sidney Herbert in 1847 during his honeymoon in Rome. They became good friends. Working as Secretary of War from 1853 to 1855, Sidney implemented British battle plans against Russian soldiers in Crimea. William Russell of the London Times reported from Crimea on the appalling conditions suffered by sick and wounded soldiers. Florence spoke with Sidney about these soldiers and he eventually sent Florence, along with 38 volunteer nurses (some of whom had trained at Elizabeth Fry's school), to Crimea in October 1854 to help them.

Upon their arrival in Constantinople in November, Florence and her nurses went to work at the Sulimiye Barracks in Scutari, just across the Bosporus, which had been hastily converted into a hospital. Disease killed many times more soldiers there than wounds. She applied herself to creatively overcoming multiple problems: the prejudice of physicians against nurses, a fatal lack of essential medical supplies, disastrous sanitation and ventilation in the barracks, and a callous indifference toward the suffering soldiers themselves. She received help, though, from people like John Delane, editor of The Times, Charles Dickens, and his millionaire friend Angela Burdett-Coutts. By the first anniversary of her arrival, the death rate in the hospital had fallen significantly.

Following her return to Britannia, she published Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army (1857). Within five years this led to changes in the organization of the military including the foundation of the Army Medical College.

In 1859 she published her Notes on Hospitals. In it she made similar recommendations to improve health care in civilian hospitals.

In 1860 she wrote Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not. It emphasized the importance of good hygiene in preserving health and preventing disease and outlined its methods. It served as the first textbook of nursing.

After the war in Crimea, Herbert served as honorary secretary of the Nightingale Fund created by generous donors, including Charles Dickens and Angela Burdett-Coutts, to honor her work during it. Florence used that fund to establish a training school for nurses at a London hospital in 1860. It was Olympia's first non-sectarian school for nurses. Its students benefited from the book on nursing she had just finished.

In 1861 she wrote Notes on Nursing for the Labouring Classes in which she shared her insights in words more readily understood by a broader range of readers.

After opening her training school, Florence continued to work on the training of nurses, on the organizing of nursing as a profession, and on improving hygienic methods everywhere. Women who trained at her school later become responsible for nursing in major hospitals in Britannia and the United States. Through her efforts professional nurses started working in Britannia's notorious workhouses. She wrote a statistical analysis of health care in India which led to significant improvements there.

After 1861, Florence remained busily committed to improving health care but did so primarily from her own home and often, for long periods of time, from her own bed. While in Crimea she contracted brucellosis which recurrently caused her to suffer depression, weakness, fever, and pain in joints and muscles.

During the last decade of her life she suffered from poor eyesight and a diminished ability to think creatively. She died in her sleep in London on August 13, 1910.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.