Florence Nightingale: her legacy continues

11-08-2010 Feature

Few people have had as strong an impact on nursing as Florence Nightingale. Born in 1820, she was a true innovator who achieved legendary status during her own lifetime thanks to her work to advance the nursing profession and health care.

As there was little nursing training at the time, Florence Nightingale was virtually self taught. Learning through experience she established herself as a nurse and one of the first experts on public hygiene and sanitary conditions.

Like Henry Dunant, whose vision to create the RCRC Movement was born on the battlefield in Solferino, Italy in 1859, Florence Nightingale's experience during the Crimean War (1854-1856) inspired not only her work to transform health care, but also laid the groundwork for National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to carry out their traditional task of caring for wounded and sick members of the armed forces. In fact, Henry Dunant said that the example set by Florence Nightingale inspired his work to found the Red Cross Red Crescent.

When she and 40 other nurses volunteered to care for the wounded soldiers at a hospital in the Istanbul suburb of Scutari, they faced appalling hospital conditions – filth, overcrowding, rats and shortages of food, clothing, surgeons, equipment and medicines. She also had to contend with the animosity of doctors who regarded her as an intruder. However, her extraordinary organizational skills, enterprising spirit and dogged determination enabled her to make the hospital more efficient and gain acceptance for her nurses in the treatment of the wounded which had previously been the domain of military personnel.

During the night, when not writing letters for the soldiers to their families, she moved through the wards, lamp in hand, comforting her patients, earning her the nickname " the lady with the lamp. "  Upon her return to England, Florence Nightingale worked tirelessly in furthering the causes d ear to her: reforming the army's medical services, changing hospital design, developing the field of preventive medicine and improving the status and training of nurses. 

Using the lessons learned in the Crimea she wrote a book called Notes on Nursing , which detailed how to create environments that were most conducive to recovery and providing practical advice which ran counter to prevailing beliefs. The combination of sound practice and practical advice is one of the reasons why, despite many advances in medical science and health services, her approach remains relevant for caregivers today.

The example set by Florence Nightingale has inspired and continues to inspire countless nurses throughout the world. A medal was created in her honour in 1912 to recognize outstanding nurses and nursing aides who have shown exceptional courage and devotion to the wounded, sick and disabled, or to civilian victims of armed conflict and natural disaster.

Related sections