Florence Nightingale: The story of the Mother of Modern Nursing

Florence Nightingale is regarded to be a pioneer in the field of modern nursing. (Wellcome Collection pic)

With the toll that the Covid-19 pandemic is taking on Malaysia, it is no surprise that people are recognising just how important healthcare workers are to the country.

While doctors play an imperative role in treating illnesses, nurses and the tender care they provide to patients are just as important.

International Nurses Day is celebrated annually on May 12, and what better way to observe it than to learn the story of history’s most famous nurse, Florence Nightingale.

Born on May 12, 1820, Nightingale was so named after her place of birth, the Italian city of Florence. She was the youngest girl in her family, with two elder sisters.

Her father, a cultured landowner, recognised her intelligence and gave her an extensive education in history, language and philosophy.

The Nightingale family had a philanthropic streak, and used their money to care for the sick.

As a young woman, Nightingale defied societal expectations by willingly becoming a nurse. (Wellcome Collection pic)

At the time, most sick people were treated at home and hospitals were mostly reserved for the rich.

These hospitals were also operated by nursing staff who were not provided proper medical training.

Sometimes visiting hospitals with her parents, Nightingale was inspired to be a healer, much to her parents’ horror.

Ladies of her station were not meant to engage in such “undignified” professions, but rather be married off into other high-status families as housewives and mothers.

Defying her parents, Nightingale headed to Germany to become a deaconess, where she learnt the fundamentals of nursing.

Back then, hospitals were unsanitary, lacked adequate equipment and mortality rates were morbidly high.

Nightingale eventually returned to England to work as a nurse, and one of the first steps she took at her nursery was to improve hygiene standards.

The mortality rates there markedly improved and she rose to become the head nurse within a year.

Nightingale was affectionately dubbed “The Lady with the Lamp” because of her nightly vigils. (Wellcome Collection pic)

In 1853, the Crimean War broke out with France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire fighting Russia.

Within a year, 18,000 British soldiers were in desperate need of medical treatment and resources were limited.

The sheer numbers of wounded also caused hospital sanitation levels to plummet.

With the situation spiralling out of control, War Minister, Sidney Herbert, asked Nightingale for her help.

She, together with 34 of her nurses, travelled to the Crimean Peninsula and were shocked at the appalling conditions of its hospitals.

The field hospitals were filthy and suffered from pest infestations and the lack of clean water.

Severely wounded patients were left to wallow in their own waste and more and more patients kept coming in only to die of preventable infections.

Without a moment to lose, Nightingale began a thorough sanitation of the hospitals and personally tended to the wounded soldiers.

A painting depicting Nightingale receiving patients at the Scutari military hospital during the Crimean War. (Wikipedia pic)

The familiar sight of her travelling the halls with oil lamp in hand earned her the affectionate moniker of “The Lady with the Lamp”.

She was also called “the Angel of the Crimea” by grateful soldiers, and almost miraculously, the mortality rate in the field hospitals dropped by 70%.

In addition to improving the condition of hospital wards, Nightingale also introduced healthy meals, clean bedsheets and entertainment for the soldiers.

Soldiers were now able to send money back to their families at home thanks to Nightingale and she also personally wrote letters informing families about the state of their loved ones on the frontline.

She returned home in 1856 and spent the next two years writing about her experiences and the lessons learnt while serving.

Soon Nightingale was thrusted into the limelight as a national hero, which caught the humble nurse by surprise.

She was even honoured by Queen Victoria, who awarded her the Royal Red Cross and a financial grant.

In her later years, Nightingale would continue to advocate for healthcare reforms. (Wellcome Collection pic)

In 1860, that grant was used by Nightingale to found the world’s first professional nursing school at the St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

The status of nurses, once thought to be the job of maids, widows and nuns, rose rapidly due to her contributions.

Like today’s front liners, Nightingale risked her health to care for her patients, and a fever she caught while serving in the war followed her back home.

She was made bedridden repeatedly, but she continued her work and her writing nonetheless.

Nightingale became the go-to source for people seeking to reform their healthcare systems.

As she entered her twilight years, her sight and memory began to wane. On Aug 13, 1910, the Lady with the Lamp passed away peacefully in her sleep.

In the only existing audio recording of her voice, she is heard saying, “When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life.”

On this International Nurses Day, FMT salutes Nightingale and women like her whose sacrifices and work continue to save and improve lives to this day.