Florence Nightingale, the daughter of the wealthy landowner, William Nightingale of Embly Park, Hampshire, was born in Florence, Italy, on 12th May, 1820. Her father was a Unitarian and a Whig who was involved in the anti-slavery movement. As a child, Florence was very close to her father, who, without a son, treated her as his friend and companion. He took responsibility for her education and taught her Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, history, philosophy and mathematics.
Elizabeth Gaskell described her as "tall, willowy in figure, with thick shortish rich brown hair, a delicate complexion, and grey eyes that are generally pensive but could be the merriest." Her biographer, Colin Matthew, has pointed out: "Florence was a good mimic, attractive to men, and had a number of suitors; many of the men she met through her parents remained lifelong friends.... In spite of these advantages Florence Nightingale was an unhappy young woman. She suffered from bouts of depression and feelings of unworthiness, and she questioned the purpose of life for the upper classes. Unlike her mother and sister, who were content to do good works on the estates, she pondered on the need for charity and the causes of poverty and unemployment."
At seventeen she felt herself to be called by God to some unnamed great cause. Florence's mother, Fanny Nightingale, also came from a staunch Unitarian family. Fanny was a domineering woman who was primarily concerned with finding her daughter a good husband. She was therefore upset by Florence's decision to reject Lord Houghton's offer of marriage. Florence refused to marry several suitors, and at the age of twenty-five told her parents she wanted to become a nurse. Her parents were totally opposed to the idea as nursing was associated with working class women.
Florence's desire to have a career in medicine was reinforced when she met Elizabeth Blackwell at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. Blackwell was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the United States. Blackwell, who had to overcome considerable prejudice to achieve her ambition, encouraged her to keep trying and in 1851 Florence's father gave her permission to train as a nurse.
Florence, now thirty-one, went to Kaiserwerth, Germany where she studied to become a nurse at the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses. Two years later she was appointed resident lady superintendent of a hospital for invalid women in Harley Street, London.
In March, 1853, Russia invaded Turkey. Britain and France, concerned about the growing power of Russia, went to Turkey's aid. This conflict became known as the Crimean War. Soon after British soldiers arrived in Turkey, they began going down with cholera and malaria. Within a few weeks an estimated 8,000 men were suffering from these two diseases.
William Howard Russell, who worked for The Times, reported the Siege of Sevastopol. He found Lord Raglan uncooperative and wrote to his editor, John Thadeus Delane alleging unfairly that "Lord Raglan is utterly incompetent to lead an army". Roger T. Stearn has argued: "Unwelcomed and obstructed by Lord Raglan, senior officers (except de Lacy Evans), and staff, yet neither banned, controlled, nor censored, William Russell made friends with junior officers, and from them and other ranks, and by observation, gained his information. He wore quasi-military clothes and was armed, but did not fight. He was not a great writer but his reports were vivid, dramatic, interesting, and convincing.... His reports identified with the British forces and praised British heroism. He exposed logistic and medical bungling and failure, and the suffering of the troops."
Russell's reports revealled the sufferings of the British Army during the winter of 1854-1855. These accounts upset Queen Victoria who described them as these "infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers". Prince Albert, who took a keen interest in military matters, commented that "the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country." Lord Raglan complained that Russell had revealed military information potentially useful to the enemy.
William Howard Russell reported that British soldiers began going down with cholera and malaria. Within a few weeks an estimated 8,000 men were suffering from these two diseases. When Mary Seacole heard about the cholera epidemic she travelled to London to offer her services to the British Army. There was considerable prejudice against women's involvement in medicine and her offer was rejected. When Russell publicised the fact that a large number of soldiers were dying of cholera there was a public outcry, and the government was forced to change its mind. Florence Nightingale volunteered her services and was eventually given permission to take a group of thirty-eight nurses to Turkey.
Nightingale found the conditions in the army hospital in Scutari appalling. The men were kept in rooms without blankets or decent food. Unwashed, they were still wearing their army uniforms that were "stiff with dirt and gore". In these conditions, it was not surprising that in army hospitals, war wounds only accounted for one death in six. Diseases such as typhus, cholera and dysentery were the main reasons why the death-rate was so high amongst wounded soldiers.
Edward T. Cook, the author of The Life of Florence Nightingale (1913), quoted one of the men in the hospital that she treated: "Florence Nightingale 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."
Military officers and doctors objected to Nightingale's views on reforming military hospitals. They interpreted her comments as an attack on their professionalism and she was made to feel unwelcome. Nightingale received very little help from the military until she used her contacts at The Times to report details of the way that the British Army treated its wounded soldiers. John Delane, the editor of newspaper took up her cause, and after a great deal of publicity, Nightingale was given the task of organizing the barracks hospital after the battle of Inkerman and by improving the quality of the sanitation she was able to dramatically reduce the death-rate of her patients.
Sidney Herbert wrote "There broke out in different parts of the country a feeling of immediate and spontaneous expression of public gratitude and isolated portions of the country were preparing to make gifts to her." Charles Dickens and Angela Burdett-Coutts were two people who wished to contribute. Nightingale had spoken about the "sodden misery in the hospital". On Dickens's advice, at the end of January 1855, Burdett-Coutts ordered from William Jeakes, an engineer working in Bloomsbury, a drying closet machine. It was built at a cost of £150. It was shipped out in parts and re-assembled in Istanbul. According to The Illustrated London News "1,000 articles of linen can be thoroughly dried in 25 minutes with the aid of Mr Jeakes centrifugal machine which took the wet out of the linen before it is placed in the drying closet." Dr Sutherland, who was working at the army hospital, wrote a letter of thanks to Jeakes: "The wet clothes give in as soon as they have seen it and dry up forthwith. The machine does great credit to Miss Coutt's philanthropy and also your engineering." Dickens commented that the machine was "the only solitary administrative thing, connected with the war that has been a success."
Although Mary Seacole was an expert at dealing with cholera, her application to join Florence Nightingale's team was rejected. Mary, who had become a successful business woman in Jamaica, decided to travel to the Crimea at her own expense. She visited Nightingale at her hospital at Scutari but once again Mary's offer of help was refused. Unwilling to accept defeat, Mary Seacole started up a business called the British Hotel, a few miles from the battlefront. Here she sold food and drink to the British soldiers. With the money she earned from her business Mary was able to finance the medical treatment she gave to the soldiers. Whereas Florence Nightingale and her nurses were based in a hospital several miles from the front, Mary Seacole treated her patients on the battlefield. On several occasions she was found treating wounded soldiers from both sides while the battle was still going on.
The war ended in March 1856. Out of 94,000 men sent to the war area, 4,000 died of wounds but 19,000 died of disease, and 13,000 were invalided out of the army. Florence Nightingale returned to England as a national heroine. She had been deeply shocked by the lack of hygiene and elementary care that the men received in the British Army. She later wrote: "I stand at the altar of murdered men and while I live I will fight their cause". Nightingale therefore decided to begin a campaign to improve the quality of of nursing in military hospitals. In October, 1856, she had a long interview with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and the following year gave evidence to the 1857 Sanitary Commission. This eventually resulted in the formation of the Army Medical College.
To spread her opinions on reform, Nightingale published two books, Notes on Hospital (1859) and Notes on Nursing (1859). With the support of wealthy friends and John Delane at The Times, Nightingale was able to raise £59,000 to improve the quality of nursing. In 1860, she used this money to found the Nightingale School & Home for Nurses at St. Thomas's Hospital. She also became involved in the training of nurses for employment in the workhouses that had been established as a result of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.
Nightingale held strong opinions on women's rights. In her book Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truths (1859) she argued strongly for the removal of restrictions that prevented women having careers. Read by John Stuart Mill, it influenced his book on women's rights, The Subjection of Women (1869).
Nightingale was also strongly opposed to the passing of the Contagious Diseases Act. However, Nightingale was unwilling to become involved in the campaign led by Josephine Butler to get this legislation repealed. Nightingale preferred working behind the scenes to get laws changed and disapproved of women making speeches in public. Women such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake were disappointed by Nightingale's lack of support for women's doctors. Nightingale had doubts at first about the wisdom of this campaign and argued that it was more important to have better trained nurses than women doctors.
Her biographer, Colin Matthew, has pointed out: "At the age of sixty Florence Nightingale considered herself old. Her friends and collaborators were dead, but her health improved. The thin, waspish woman who sent mordant, aphoristic letters to ministers now metamorphosed into a stout, benevolent old lady. She tried to keep up with public-health matters but she was increasingly out of touch.... She continued to write sentimental addresses to probationers until 1889, but by now her eyesight was failing.... She spent almost the whole of her final fifteen years in her room in South Street."
Florence Nightingale died in London on 13th August, 1910.