How Florence Nightingale Revolutionized Modern Nursing

Florence Nightingale was a force to be recognized due to her tireless work, and her teachings on hand hygiene may be her greatest legacy.
Raycene Nevils-Karakeci
Florence Nightingale National Library of Medicine

Florence Nightingale is perhaps most well known for changing the history of nursing during the Crimean War. Soldiers took to calling her “The Lady With The Lamp” as she cared for the sick and wounded with unfailing resolve, often walking by their bedsides at night with a lamp. 

As the 200th anniversary of her death approaches, the contributions to society of Florence Nightingale are of particular relevance today for reasons more than just the date and her nickname.

Florence Nightingale, more than “The Lady with The Lamp”

In the era of Covid-19, our daily lives are consumed with both fear of becoming ill and faith in the medical system. If not for the model of cleanliness and the dedication to nursing that Florence Nightingale exemplified, modern society may have been without a fighting chance against this pandemic.

Florence Nightingale, as a nurse, revolutionized not only her own profession but the entire field of medicine. 

She was born on May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy, to a British family of high social standing. She was named for her place of birth. Raised between two beautiful estates, Florence received an education fitting for a girl of her status. Her father was her teacher and provided her with an education that included German, French, and Italian.

As a young girl, Florence enjoyed caring for the people in her village. She felt that God had called her to be a nurse. However, nursing was not an appropriate activity for a woman of her status. According to the status quo of that time, Florence should have married a wealthy suitor from a good background.

Working was seen as something destined for women from the lower classes. Florence did not feel this way and was persistent in pursuing her dreams. After she turned down a marriage proposal and continued to pursue her passion for nursing in the years following, Florence’s parents finally permitted her to be trained as a nurse.

She got her education in Germany and started working in London. 


Florence Nightingale saves lives through hygiene

Florence Nightingale’s talent as a nurse became apparent quickly as she moved up through the rankings at the hospital where she was employed. She was instrumental in controlling a cholera outbreak at her hospital due to her insistence on the implementation of sanitary practices.

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Florence was a staunch advocate for hygiene practices, which in turn saved the lives of many of her patients throughout her career. This is especially true for her role in the Crimean War, in which the British fought the Russians for control of the Ottoman Empire. 

How Florence Nightingale Revolutionized Modern Nursing
Source: Goodman/Wikimedia Commons

Florence was sent to Crimea to care for soldiers and was appalled at the squalid conditions of the hospitals.

She later went to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) to the main hospital for British soldiers. The Barrack Hospital in Scutari, which is now a district of Istanbul called Uskudar, was nightmarish. The floors were covered in layers of human waste, the hospital was overrun by rodents and insects.

Perhaps worst of all, it turns out that the hospital had been built over a sewer and the water was toxic.

Florence mobilized the hospital, patients, and staff alike, in a massive cleaning effort. The soldiers until then had been dying not of their wounds but of communicable diseases like cholera and typhoid. After the hospital was cleaned and hygiene standards were implemented, the death rate was reduced by an astounding two thirds. 

Florence Nightingale battled chronic illness

While her efforts in the Crimean War made her a national heroine, Florence returned home frail and in poor health. She had contracted the “Crimean fever” during her service in the war and would suffer from its effects for the rest of her life. The debilitating illness (now known as brucellosis) was episodic and affected her psychologically and physically.

She suffered from depression and was often unable to walk, spending years at a time bedridden and in excruciating pain. Because of both the direct and indirect psychological effects of her illness, Florence Nightingale was often accused of faking her illness or using it as a gimmick to keep her in favorable standing in the public eye. Despite her personal and public difficulties, Florence kept working. 

The mother of modern hand hygiene 

Working from bed, in 1860, Florence Nightingale penned “Notes on Nursing” a report in which among other things, she stated that nurses should wash their hands as often as possible. While other cultures at the time had already developed hygiene practices, this was revolutionary for Western medicine. Doctors and nurses of Britain at that time had little understanding of how hygiene could work for or against them in keeping patients alive.

Florence Nightingale worked with her government, producing a statistical study for whose results she illustrated in an easy-to-understand diagram, explaining army death rates. 16,000 out of 18,000 soldiers had died because of preventable diseases due to poor sanitation.

Nightingale established a hospital and continued working on commissions on public health and sanitation for the rest of her life.

Florence Nightingale's theories earned her a space in history as the world’s most famous nurse. She was charitable, hardworking, and her discoveries on sanitation saved countless lives.

Lessons from Nightingale during a pandemic 

As nurses the world over are dealing with the devastating effects of humanity’s latest pandemic, coronavirus, Florence Nightingale’s emphasis on handwashing and hospital hygiene are as important now as they were during her lifetime. Hand hygiene is still something that people have to be taught, despite its obvious importance.

Nurses dealing with COVID-19 are also dealing with what Florence Nightingale faced in the Crimean War, massive loss of life, and a risk to their own health due to a lack of equipment and hygiene protocol sufficient in stopping the spread of disease.

Florence Nightingale’s publications taught people in the medical field so much, but the most simple of her lessons, hand hygiene, may reinforce Nightingale’s image as one of the world's most important historical nursing figures. 

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