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Florence Nightingale, Feminist

Judith Cromwell
Judith Cromwell

A guest post by Judith Lissauer Cromwell

As Covid-19 continues to ravage the planet, The World Health Organization’s naming of 2020 as The Year of the Nurse to honor the two hundredth anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth is singularly apt.

Most people have heard of Nightingale.  Not all know why.  Born (May 12, 1820) into wealth and privilege, brought up in the cream of English society, a precocious, mischievous child longed to be useful — to nurse the indigent sick.  “My daydreams were all of hospitals”; teen-aged Florence “visited them whenever I could.”[i]  But before satisfying her thirst for “a profession, a trade, a necessary occupation, something to fill & employ my faculties,”[ii] Florence must free herself from The Prison Called Family — those she loved most.

Coincidence catapulted Nightingale into the Crimean war. (1854-6) Appointed to lead the first female nursing contingent to enter that most hidebound of male bastions — a British military hospital – she gave the world a dramatic example of what energy and determination can achieve in a desperate situation.  “Though I am unable to tell you who was responsible for leaving the sick in that wretched condition, I am able to tell you who rescued them from it.”[iii]  Circumstances thrust Florence into more than nursing.  Her genius “lay in coming to hospitals miserably disorganized or rather unorganized, & in organizing them.”[iv]

Florence NightingaleNightly, lantern in hand, Nightingale made her rounds through four miles of wards “thickly lined with beds.”  During this “not easily forgotten” walk, Florence ministered to hundreds of men, her “manner so tender and kind.”[v]  Soldiers revered The Lady with the Lamp.

“I can never forget”[vi] that fractured army of bloody, flea-ridden skeletons flooding into the hospitals during the war’s first dreadful winter.  Hence, despite extreme physical debility due to a disease (then unknown) caught in the Crimea, an illness that tied Florence to bed for thirty years, she focused on curing conditions that triggered the Crimean calamity: the death of thousands due to preventable causes.

As a female, Nightingale could not be the public face of reform.  She toiled behind the scenes.  Radiating charm and intelligence, vitality and dedication, armed with the new science of statistics (Florence pioneered the presentation of military hospital mortality data as a colored pie-chart) she, no less than her goals, attracted politicians and professionals as vital allies.  Nightingale’s efforts resulted in superior sanitary standards for military installations throughout Britain.  Thousands of soldiers owed their lives to Florence Nightingale.

Britain based many soldiers in her premier colony.  Nightingale thus initiated sanitary reform for army institutions on the Indian subcontinent.  But India lacked statistics.  Florence designed a form, personally sent it to each of several hundred military installations, and, with colleagues, collated the cascade of resulting data.  She concluded that decent sanitation would dramatically reduce the death rate among British soldiers in India.  It did.

“Unless you improve the sanitary condition of the civil population you cannot insure immunity for the soldiers from epidemics,”[vii] Nightingale urged.  Certainly, thousands of Indians still died from typhoid and cholera.  But thousands lived because a bedbound female who had never been to India taught viceroys and colonels what must be done to bring basic hygiene to the whole country, and how to do it.

Nightingale did not invent modern hospital nursing.  She prepared to become a nurse by methodically studying medical institutions at home and abroad.  Florence gained hands-on experience through nursing friends, family, and the poor on her father’s estates.  When the Crimean war gave Nightingale the chance to act, she organized practical ideas into a coherent whole which she infused with humanity, what a close friend called ‘Flo’s incredible bonté’.

By insisting that probationers at her pioneering Nightingale School for Nurse Training have sterling character and receive rigorous scientific and practical education, Florence raised nursing from despised drudgery into a respectable occupation.  And her insistence that nursing be secular, gave it credibility.

Zeal for sanitary reform, expertise in hospital organization, and commitment to statistics made Florence Nightingale the formative influence on professional hospital nursing.  Within a decade, the Nightingale School effected the evolution of nursing into a career that empowered women with economic independence.

Requests for nurses swamped the School.  These led to Nightingale’s immersion in the successful introduction of trained nurses into workhouse infirmaries, and inspired her statistics-based pioneering work in district nursing and public health.

For decades, biographers have described Nightingale as manipulating a psychosomatic, even imagined, illness to impose her will.  Modern scholarship proves otherwise.  This turns her from a neurotic into a compelling woman who dared to dream when such dreams were taboo, and makes more poignant her epic struggle to succeed.

Now is the time to re-visit Nightingale’s story.  Not only because today we take for granted a woman’s ability to reach the summit in any area of human endeavor, but also because Covid-19 is proving the importance of public health, medical statistics, sanitation, and nurses as crucial in the fight against a global pandemic.


[i]   Anna Sticker, Florence Nightingale: Curriculum Vitae, pp. 3-4, July 24, 1852. FN wrote this autobiographical précis as an introduction to her stay at Germany’s Kaiserswerth institute.

[ii]   Florence Nightingale, Ever Yours, Florence Nightingale: selected letters, M. Vicinus and B. Nergaard, eds., p. 47, 1851, private note, FN.

[iii]  Peter Pincoffs, M. D., Experiences of a Physician in Eastern Military Hospitals, pp. 75-80, from a speech by sir John McNeill, M. D., chief of a parliamentary commission sent to the Crimea, at the Oct. 31, 1856 Crimean banquet and published in The Times on Nov. 3.  Pincoffs, a civilian, volunteered to serve in the Crimean war hospitals. 

[iv]   Ever Yours, FN, p. 138, Jan. 31, 1856, FN to her close friend Charles Bracebridge.

[v]   Frances Margaret Taylor, Eastern Hospitals and English Nurses – a Narrative of Twelve Months Experience in the Hospitals of Koulali and Scutari by a Lady Volunteer, vol. I, pp. 69-71.

[vi]  Cecil Woodham-Smith, Florence Nightingale, p. 180, multiple private notes, FN.  

[vii]  Monica Baly, As Miss Nightingale Said, p. 53, 1867, FN to J. P. Walker, M. D.

Following a successful corporate career on Wall Street, Judith returned to academia as an independent historian and biographer of powerful women, where she would go on to write Florence Nightingale, Feminista riveting, first-of-its-kind biography revealing the details of Nightingale’s life, career, and longstanding impact. 

Thanks Judith. I’m looking forward to reading your book.