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Opinion — Florence Nightingale: The ‘Lady with the Lamp’

Nurses — they provide comfort to the sick, holding the hand of a patient who is scared or wiping the sweat off a fevered brow. They have always been the backbone of hospitals and clinics. With the COVID-19 pandemic these past two years, it has been truth in action.

Florence Nightingale exemplified these qualities in spades. On May 12, 1820, Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy to wealthy English parents William and Frances Nightingale. She and her older sister, Parthenope, grew up near London in the Victorian Era, named after Queen Victoria.

During this period in England, girls were expected to be prim and proper, throw lavish parties and do charity work. Any thinking for yourself was unheard of, yet, Florence did not care for that kind of life. Florence and Parthenope grew up in two places in England; a country home in Derbyshire called Lea Hurst and a large, formal home close to London called Embley Park. Even as a young girl, Florence cared for others who were suffering. She, her sister and mother visited the poor in the nearby village, delivering eggs from their chicken house and fresh bread as well as caring for the sick. Florence’s formal education consisted of private governesses and teachers, including her father who taught her music, art, history, science and advanced math. At age 17, she felt a calling by God to care for the sick.

Consequently, Florence’s parents didn’t think a nursing career was appropriate for her because of the family’s social status. Florence educated herself about health care and hospitals as well as reading the newspapers about sanitation and the lack of it in Victorian England. She began her nursing education in 1850 at a training hospital that trained young, unmarried Christian women in nursing and teaching in Kaisenworth, Germany. Along the way, Florence met other people such as Elizabeth and Sidney Herbert who shared her passion for hospital reform. Subsequently, in 1853 at age 33 she became the superintendent of The Institute for Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances in London. Even though the hospital had little money, Florence handled the situation with grace and fortitude, balancing the budget when necessary and improving the conditions for the patients such as new furnishings which came from her home, installation of new plumbing so the nurses wouldn’t have to haul water buckets up the stairs and a hand bell system that got the nurses’ attention from the patients. In addition, she assisted Sidney Herbert in surveying other hospitals in London to improve conditions. Moreover, in 1859 Florence became superintendent of nurses at King’s College Hospital in London.

Unfortunately, in October 1854 The Crimean War broke out which involved Turkey declaring war against Russia over a series of disputes with the British defending Turkey. The medical conditions were horrible, and with little medical care available, soldiers were dying from wounds, cold, hunger and sickness. Upon hearing this, Florence and her team of 38 nurses arrived in Scutari, Turkey to take care of the soldiers even though the doctors were not welcoming, even to the point of refusing to work with the women in The Barrack Hospital. Needless to say, the hospital needed a big overhaul, from the nursing uniforms to stocking up on supplies and providing fresh meals for the patients.

In fact, Florence’s efforts did not go unnoticed by Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert or the London newspapers. A photo was published of her carrying a lamp while checking on soldiers in the darkened hospital, hence the name the “Lady with the Lamp.” This nurse didn’t just instruct her nurses; she was in the trenches with them, healing and comforting the sick. After the Crimean War ended, once a treaty was signed on March 30, 1856, in September of that same year, Florence was invited to visit Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace. They discussed how to improve the care of the sick and injured soldiers in times of war. In 1856, the royal couple gave Florence a beautiful engraved brooch now called the “Nightingale Jewel.” In addition, the Queen awarded Florence a large sum of money, which she used to fund a hospital and training school for nurses.

Even though Florence’s health began to fail, she was still able to effect change in the medical and nursing fields. While living in Mayfair near Buckingham Palace, she wrote a book called Notes on Nursing in 1860, which assists nurses and citizens in caring for patients and relatives. When the U.S. Civil War began, Florence served as a consultant with the U. S. Military on managing field hospitals. In 1881, the Army Nursing Services was established, making nurses an official part of the British Army. This dynamic woman received numerous honors. The Florence Nightingale Museum showcases a multitude of artifacts of Florence’s career and life. Furthermore, every year, Westminster Abbey holds a ceremony in her honor, and as a part of the ceremony a “Florence Nightingale lamp” is carried through the abbey by a nurse. The International Committee of The Red Cross recognizes nurses wo have shown courage and creativity in times of peace and war with over 1,300 nurses from all over the world receiving a medal. Sadly, in August 1910 at age 90, Florence died at her home in Mayfair, preceded in death by her parents and sister years earlier. Her resting place is near her family members in East Wellow, Hampshire near her childhood home at Embley Park.

Florence Nightingale as the “Lady with the Lamp” was a guiding light in the nursing field who endlessly demonstrated how to care for the sick and comfort them in times of distress. She recognized nursing as a call from God. We can all shine our light by caring for our loved ones or those in need. If last year has taught us anything, it is that fact.

Judy Moore, a tour guide at The Central High Museum, lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com.