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8 Florence Nightingale Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

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By Frieda Paton, M.Cur, RN

We all know Florence Nightingale as the “Lady with the Lamp” and the founder of modern nursing across the world. However, there is much more to learn about this remarkable woman whose influence extended to nursing, health care and social reform, army health services, religion, statistics and more. Here are some interesting facts about Florence Nightingale you may not have known.

1. Florence Nightingale was deeply religious.

Suggestions for Thought by Florence Nightingale Selections and Commentaries
A quote from Suggestions for Thought by Florence Nightingale
Selections and Commentaries. Via: upenn.edu

When she was 17 years old, Nightingale received, what she believed was a clear calling from God to be of service. She didn’t know what form the service would take at that point, but at 25 she identified nursing as the way to reach her goal of reducing misery and suffering in the world. She was a serious student of theology and metaphysics for the rest of her life. In 1860 she privately published a work of 829 pages entitled “Suggestions for Thought to Searchers after Religious Truth.”

2. Nightingale got her first nursing job at the age of 33.

Nightingale was born as a member of the upper classes where the role of the women in society was to do the social rounds, marry and have children. From a young age, she was could not accept this as her future, and even turned down proposals of marriage as it would interfere with her work. She had to fight strong opposition from her family to her achieve her ambition of becoming a nurse.

A ward of the hospital at Scutari where Nightingale worked, from an 1856 lithograph
A ward of the hospital at Scutari where Nightingale worked, from an 1856 lithograph

Eventually at the age of 33 Nightingale was appointed as superintendent at the new Hospital for Gentlewomen in Distress. Her drive as a social reformer and patient advocate was already evident in this position as she battled and eventually won over the hospital’s committee to admit patients of all faiths, rather than only those who belong to the Church of England.

3. The greatest contribution of “The Lady with the Lamp” relating to the Crimean War was not direct patient care.

Nightingale’s main influences on reducing patient deaths at Scutari Hospital was overcoming opposition by medical practitioners, organizing the hospital, improving the environment and obtaining supplies.

Notes on matters affecting the health, efficiency, and hospital administration of the British Army
Notes on matters affecting the health, efficiency, and hospital administration of the British Army

Troubled by the unnecessary suffering and death in the Crimea, Nightingale’s greatest contribution was after the war. She met with Queen Victoria and, after gaining her support, convinced the government to set up a commission of inquiry into the health of the army. While still exhausted and ill from the Crimean Fever which she contracted while overseas, she prepared a 1000 page report of tables and statistics, entitled “Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army”. The Commission’s Report led to far-reaching changes to health services in the British Army. You can read the digitized version of this here.

4. Florence Nightingale did most of her work while ill and housebound

A rare photograph of Nightingale in 1910, by Lizzie Caswall Smith

Nightingale was left weak and ill for the rest of her life after she nearly died from the Crimean Fever (probably Brucellosis). At age 40, when the Nightingale School was founded, she believed that she was at the point of death. However, she lived and worked ceaselessly for another 50 years and died at the age of 90 in 1910. Most of her work was done from her bed or her couch, sometimes with the assistance of friends.

5. Florence Nightingale is acknowledged as a role-model for patient advocacy.

Nightingale’s life was dedicated to reforming the causes of ill health and improving the care of the sick. Besides establishing nursing as a profession for educated women, she worked on reform in health administration, poor law legislation, public health, and army medical services.

Florence Nightingale's Notes on Being Forsaken

Nightingale’s toughness, brilliance, and upper-class background enabled her to deal with royalty, cabinet ministers, and ambassadors to achieve her goals. She was a political activist and engaged in extensive lobbying to convince leaders to implement the progressive social reforms she suggested.

No man, not even a doctor, ever gives any other definition of what a nurse should be than this — ‘devoted and obedient.’ This definition would do just as well for a porter. It might even do for a horse.
–Florence Nightingale

Nightingale is often criticized for not having actively supported some of the major causes of her time. She was however not prepared to be distracted from focusing on her goals and the action needed to achieve them. There is a movement today which censures her for not supporting the feminist movement, and having contributed to nurses remaining in a subordinate role. Careful analysis her life, actions and actual writings about the role of women, shows this to be far from the truth.

6. Florence Nightingale is an acclaimed statistician.

From a young age Nightingale had a flair for figures and at one stage she had even considered becoming a mathematician. Before the age of 30, she had already collected and analyzed a large amount of statistics on hospitals throughout Europe. She used tables of statistics and graphs widely throughout her writing to illustrate her points.

Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army
Nightingale’s famous polar diagrams showing the causes of mortality in the army. She created many novel graphics to present statistics that would persuade Queen Victoria of the need to improve sanitary conditions in military hospitals. The area of each region shows the number of soldiers who died of wounds, disease, or other causes, during each month of the Crimean War.

Nightingale is regarded as one of the most prominent statisticians in history and a pioneer in using applied statistics to influence social change. Thousands of lives were saved through her facts and figures and the unique ways she developed to display them graphically, “to affect thro’ the Eyes what we fail to convey to the public through their word-proof ears.”

Nightingale was elected as the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society in 1859 and was also made an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.

7. Florence Nightingale was a prolific researcher and writer and still inspires scholars today.

The Florence Nightingale Digitization Project
The Florence Nightingale Digitization Project – a website where you can read the old letters and works of Nightingale.

More than a century after her death, besides her books and reports, there are at least 13,000 letters written by Nightingale in public archives and private collections. She was also the shadow author for many official government documents on health care and the military. The “Collected Works of Florence Nightingale” has recently been published in sixteen volumes. In 2014 the Florence Nightingale Digitization Project was started and already the database consists of has 1,900 handwritten letters available to researchers in a single web-based source.

8. You can listen to the voice of Florence Nightingale on YouTube

YouTube video

In 1890 Edison recorded a greeting from Florence Nightingale on his Paraffin Wax Cylinder which is now available on YouTube. The purpose of the recording was to help raise funds for impoverished veterans.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

5 thoughts on “8 Florence Nightingale Facts You Probably Didn’t Know”

  1. So well written and thanks for sharing, Frieda! We are so inclined to take what we have for granted. We need to study, recognize & appreciate our roots & the work of the heroes of our past; the heritage on which the profession of nursing today is able to build itself!

    • Yes, Wilma nurses are selected by God to carry out his gift of healing. Sounds to me you are a present day hero. You never take the gift of nursing for granted.

  2. Reading through the information’s about the “Lady with the lamp”, I for one am proud to be a nurse [male nurse] and love to continue to serve the ill, elevate the suffering and be the best advocates for patients here in Fiji and where ever I may serve. I admire the words she said “NO MAN, NOT EVEN A DOCTOR, EVER GIVES ANY OTHER DEFINITION OF WHAT A NURSE SHOULD BE THAN THIS — ‘DEVOTED AND OBEDIENT.’ THIS DEFINITION WOULD DO JUST AS WELL FOR A PORTER. IT MIGHT EVEN DO FOR A HORSE.”

    May God Bless Nursing All Over The World……….

  3. I had no idea that she was such a great person. It’s about time more people knew about her and her service and contributions to mankind.

  4. Nursing was a calling as well. Inspired by Florence Nightingale, my carrier lasted 52 years. Often I was fatigued but, I loved every minute of giving care and praying for healing. Thank you Florence.


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