Florence Nightingale: The lady with the lamp

by Aira Chilcott 

Each year on 12 May, nurses everywhere are celebrated on International Nurses Day. It falls on this date because it is the birthday of Florence Nightingale, who has been called the ‘mother of modern nursing’ and is sometimes known as ‘the lady with the lamp’. 

Florence Nightingale was born to wealthy British parents while they were in Florence, Italy in 1820. (Yes, her parents named her after her birthplace!) Her parents returned to England and it was expected that, like other young women from wealthy upper-class families, when she grew up she would simply marry a man from another wealthy family and raise her own family.  

She and her sister Parthenope were intelligent, but British girls in their social class at that time were generally not expected to go to school. For a time they were educated at home by governesses, but they soon needed more challenging studies, so their father took on the role of teacher. Florence Nightingale enjoyed the rigour of mathematics and applied her analytical mind to a variety of problems. She was very good at gathering, understanding and organising information. 

God’s calling 

In 1837, she heard a voice: 

God spoke to me and called me to His Service. What form this service was to take the voice did not say. 

By the time she was 30, Nightingale had decided to become a nurse. This decision shocked her parents because nursing was something that only lower-class or working-class women did. She refused an offer of marriage and continued on the path of nursing.  

Throughout her life she sought a deeper experience of God, something beyond the socially expected rituals she had grown up with. She called this ‘mysticism’. She once wrote: 

For what is Mysticism? Is it not the attempt to draw near to God, not by rites or ceremonies but by inward disposition? Is it not merely a hard word for ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within’? 

When she became a nurse at age 30, Nightingale noted that this was the age that Jesus was when he began his ministry. She clearly saw her work as a way of following her Lord. And what better way to commit one’s life to the greatest Healer of all than by devoting oneself to healing? She once told an assembly of nurses, ‘Christ is the author of our profession.’  

Nursing was a way of helping to lift the load of suffering from the helpless and miserable, and Nightingale believed this was what God was calling her to do. To that end she travelled around Europe, looking at how different hospitals worked and studying nursing in Germany.  

In 1853 she became the Superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London. Then came the event that would really change her life: the Crimean War broke out in 1854. In November 1854, the Secretary of War, Sidney Herbert, sent Nightingale and 38 nurses to Scutari (on the edge of the Black Sea near Istanbul) to the British hospital to help soldiers fighting in the war. Doctors there initially did not want to work with women, but eventually they were grateful for the help because of the large number of injuries they had to deal with.  

From 1854 to 1856, Nightingale served as the Superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the English General Hospitals in Turkey.  

Importance of hygiene  

Using her skills in gathering, observing and analysing information, Nightingale realised that the significant death rates in hospital were not just due to injuries inflicted in the war. Poor hygiene and the spread of diseases such as typhus and cholera, as well as diarrhoea, dysentery and scurvy, accounted for many of the deaths. This was made even worse by the blocked drains and the rats that were scurrying around the wards.  

Nightingale cleaned the place up, literally. She also ensured that the men were well fed and had clean bed linen and bandages. The nurses brought supplies, nutritious food, cleanliness, and sanitation to the military hospital. They also provided individual care and support. Nightingale was known for carrying a lamp and checking on the soldiers at night, so they gave her the nickname ‘the lady with the lamp’.  

Within a few months of her arrival, Nightingale’s improvements to sanitation reduced the death rate from 60% to 42%. Another few months later, it was down to 2%.  

Nightingale also helped stand up for the rights of men who were hospitalised because of their war service. For example, the law said that these wounded men, since they were no longer in danger of being shot, should have their pay cut. This was not fair, however, because their wounds often handicapped them for life. Nightingale opposed these pay cuts and wrote directly to Queen Victoria to explain why. The law changed and the men’s pay was restored.  

When the Crimean War ended, Florence Nightingale was acknowledged as a hero. As one biographer said, ‘She had the country at her feet.’ Queen Victoria presented Nightingale with a diamond brooch. The inscription on the back read: 

To Miss Florence Nightingale as a mark of esteem and gratitude for her devotion toward the queen’s brave soldiers from Victoria R. 1855.  

After her return to England, Nightingale continued to work on improving the conditions in hospitals. In 1856, on the basis of data compiled by Nightingale, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert formed a Royal Commission to improve the health of the British Army. Nightingale was also elected as the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society, due to her skill with data and analysis.  

In 1883, she received the Royal Red Cross from Queen Victoria, and in 1907 she was awarded the Order of Merit by King Edward VII for her services.  


In 1859, Nightingale helped to set up the Army Medical College in Chatham and she also published a book called Notes on Nursing: What it is, and what it is not. Her book gives advice on good patient care and safe hospital environments. In 1860, the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas’ Hospital was officially opened. She wrote over 150 books, pamphlets and reports on safe nursing practice. 

As a result of her efforts during the war, a fund was set up for Nightingale to continue teaching nurses in England. In her later years, Nightingale was often confined to her bed because of illness. However, this did not stop her from caring for others: she continued to teach people about safe nursing practices until her death in 1910.  

Two of the strategies used for slowing the rate of infection during the COVID-19 pandemic can be attributed to Nightingale: the use of data and statistics to understand the spread of infection, and sanitation methods such as simple hand-washing and isolation. Nightingale also put a human face on caring for the sick. Her compassion for those she cared for is the very heart of the ethos of nursing.  

Two years after her death, the International Committee of the Red Cross created the Florence Nightingale Medal. This is an award that is given to excellent nurses every two years. International Nurses Day has been celebrated on her birthday since 1965. In May of 2010, the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ Hospital in London reopened to honour the hundredth anniversary of Nightingale’s death.  

The impact of Florence Nightingale’s faithful service to God and care for others went far beyond just the patients she cared for personally. Jean-Henri Dunant, the Swiss man famous for founding the Red Cross, said this about her:  

Though I’m known as the founder of the Red Cross … it is to an Englishwoman that all the honour is due. What inspired me … was the work of Florence Nightingale. 

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