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Background

My Name is Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Florence Nightingale lived from 1820 to 1910 in Victorian England. She was the second daughter of a well-to-do family. Her childhood went according to the upper class pattern. In the summers, the family, accompanied by nieces and nephews, stayed in the country. In the winters, they lived in London to participate in metropolitan society with their friends. In contrast to her elder sister, Nightingale showed little interest in balls and parties. Her interests were in mathematics, statistics and the fate of the poor and the ill. Marriage, the prime destiny of most women, was no option for her in her quest for a useful existence.

A Call from God (1837)

A young Florence Nightingale reading a book in front of a tree
A young Florence Nightingale reading a book in front of a tree. Credits: Florence Nightingale Institute, Culemborg, The Netherlands www.fnl.nl

In 1837, a spiritual experience awakened her interest in social problems. In her diary, Nightingale wrote on 7 February that she had heard the voice of God, summoning her to His service. What this calling meant exactly was unclear at the time. She started to nurse the ill in the poor farmers’ dwellings in the neighbourhood. In the early 19th century, prosperous ladies’ involvement in charity for the poor or for prisoners was common. But the actual nursing, to which Nightingale felt attracted, was extremely improper for a Victorian young lady. For the time being, she could not practice her vocation. She bided her time while gathering information about military health service, about diseases and the organisation of hospitals. To this aim, she corresponded with prominent figures at home and abroad.

Nightingale the Scientist

Nightingale’s collector’s passion produced a huge quantity of international data on illness, mortality, and the organisation of hospitals. With her superior knowledge of math, she processed these numbers into instructive statistics, such as the famous Coxcomb Chart, which she developed to assess mortality. Through these coloured graphs, she made it plausible that improvements in health care were imperative. In scientific circles, Nightingale was considered an important statistician, on the basis of which she became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. Nightingale was first a scientist, before she embraced nursing.

Critical to Contemporary Training

At the age of 30, Florence Nightingale began orienting herself on the practice of nursing, against the will of her parents. For several weeks, she visited a deaconesses’ training in the German Kaiserwerth, where she even acquired a certificate. She also visited the Soeurs de la Charité in France, where nursing by religious sisters was at a higher level than in England. Although at the time impressed by the level of expertise in both these nursing communities, at a later age, Nightingale was critical of the level of contemporary deaconesses’ training. Through her scientific activities, in combination with some practical knowledge, Nightingale had become an expert in the field of health care by the time the Crimean War broke out.