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Florence Nightingale's Contributions to Nursing and Medicine

written by: Patricia Gable • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 2/26/2014

When we think of nurses today we think of kind, helpful people having a big impact in the lives of the sick and hurting. However, nurses were not always looked up to. Learn about Florence Nightingale and how she made nursing an honorable profession.

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    Florence Nightingale's impact on medicine and the nursing profession cannot be denied. What drove this woman from a wealthy family to give up the high society life to care for wounded soldiers? What made her seek a career over marriage when it was unheard of at this time? Let's find out!

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    Early Life

    Even as a young child Florence did not follow the path that her wealthy parents planned for her. She enjoyed setting up a doll hospital Florence Nightingale and helping the sick and hungry servants on her father’s land. She preferred studying and writing in her journal to attending social events with her sister.

    From her father, Florence studied subjects most often taught only to men: mathematics, writing, history and foreign languages. At the age of sixteen, Florence claimed that God spoke to her and wanted her to serve mankind in some way. She always noticed the poor conditions and illness in places where she traveled. So she asked her parents if she could study to become a nurse. Her parents said, “No!"

    At that time, nurses were considered to be servants, dirty and often drunk. Most did not have medical training and were treated badly by doctors. The hospitals where they worked were only for poor people, crowded and full of disease. Wealthy people had doctors come to their own homes when they were sick.

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    In Her Twenties and Thirties

    Much to her family’s disappointment, Florence turned down two marriage proposals! She wanted to remain single and follow God’s wishes for her. So her parents allowed her to travel and along the way she met friends who shared a common interest. They also wanted to improve hospitals and train nurses to help the poor.

    At the age of thirty, Florence secretly studied in Germany. She learned how to train nurses and organize hospitals to make them better for the poor. When she returned to her family in England, her parents were very angry. They forced her to stay home with her sister and attend social events. Florence was heartbroken.

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    An Inspiration

    During the period when she was made to stay home, Florence met an important person who became her friend. It was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the United States. They shared a common bond of wanting to help the poor and sick. Both struggled against the common belief at the time that women should stay at home and that the medical field was meant only for men. Elizabeth encouraged Florence to keep fighting for her beliefs.

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    Florence Breaks Free!

    At the age of 31, a determined Florence finally chose her career over her family. She told them she was going to return to Germany to study nursing. She learned how to train nurses, to keep records and organize hospitals. She worked in an orphanage, a place for children without parents, and a hospital. She then accepted a job to manage a nursing home for women in London.

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    In 1853 Russia invaded Turkey to begin the Crimean War. The British and French people were worried that Russia was getting too powerful so they sent troops to help Turkey. It didn’t take long for sickness to break out among the troops. Diseases like Malaria and Cholera were causing many deaths. Cholera is a germ that attacks the bowels. It causes diarrhea and dehydration which, left untreated, leads to death. Malaria causes a very high fever.

    The supplies were unorganized and the care was poor. Florence was asked to assemble a group of nurses and come to help in the military hospitals in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). In the beginning, the doctors refused to let the nurses help. Then vast amount of wounded soldiers began to arrive and they had no choice but to let the ladies begin their care of the soldiers.

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    Lady With the Lamp

    Florence Nightingale's impact on medicine and medical care was taking hold. Under Florence's direction the ladies scrubbed the hospital, stuffed clean straw into the mattresses and tended to the the wounds of the injured. The doctors continued to resent Florence but the soldiers loved her for treating them with respect. Florence worked long hours and was known for carrying a lamp as she made her nightly rounds to check on the men. She was nicknamed “The Lady with the Lamp". Florence herself became ill with a fever and was sick for several months. As clean as the hospital was kept, people still died. She wanted to find the cause of this problem. She begged the British government to do an investigation and it was learned that clogged sewers were causing poisonous gases to filter into the hospital making everyone sick.

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    A National Hero

    Florence returned home after the war and was recognized as a heroine. Children, ships and racehorses were named after her! She did not want the praise. She remained haunted by all of the death she witnessed. Confining herself to her room she worked many hours a day writing ideas and reports. She influenced powerful people to make new laws improving health care. She pushed the people around her to work as hard as she did. She became England's expert in public health. Her work earned her the honor of being the first woman to receive the Order of Merit. She died in England at the age of 90.

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    Florence Nightingale's contributions to the nursing profession are numerous.

    • Florence set up reading rooms and recreational programs for the soldiers as their health improved.
    • Wrote letters to the families of soldiers in her care.
    • Used her influence to improve public health systems in England and India.
    • Opened the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in London.
    • Her nurse's training methods spread worldwide.
    • Sent reports that helped improve military medical care during the Civil War
    • Wrote books on nursing and women’s rights
    • Influenced the formation of the Army Medical College
    • Made nursing an admirable profession for women
    • Her ideas to improve medical care helped hospitals around the world.

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    Resources to Learn More

    Visit the Florence Nightingale Museum Website to learn more about her amazing life and career.


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  • Image: : Author-Duyckinick, Evert A.
  • Spartacus.schoolnet - All About Florence Nightingale