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May 12, Florence Nightingale Day

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Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale

‘Lady with the lamp’ whose legacy lives on in the days of Covid 

Her decision to become a nurse appalled her parents, but as we mark the 201st anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale it’s clear that this remarkable Victorian trail-blazer is a heroine for today. Former primary school teacher Laura Steele of education resources experts PlanBee says why not mark the day with your children

Born into wealth

Florence Nightingale was born in 1820 into a wealthy family. She was named after the city she was born in – Florence, in Italy. Her family moved back to Britain in 1821. In the Victorian era, girls from families like the Nightingales were expected to get married and spend their days looking after the home and children, with some occasional charity work. However, Florence had other ideas… 

A break with tradition

Florence decided not to get married. She was deeply religious and believed that God wanted her to do important work. In 1844, she announced she was going to become a nurse, a decision that horrified her parents. Doctors performed operations with no anaesthetic (which stopped a patient feeling pain). Most people who went to hospital died there. Nurses were rarely trained, and it was not seen as a respectable profession.

In 1853, she was asked by a friend to run a hospital in London that cared for sick ‘gentlewomen’. Florence received no money for doing this, but was able to put the nursing skills she had learnt into practice, and made many useful changes to the way the hospital was run.

War in the Crimea: 1853

As Great Britain, France and Turkey were went to war with Russia, British newspapers reported appalling conditions in the hospitals in Turkey, where those wounded in battle were sent to be treated. More soldiers were dying from the diseases they caught in the hospital than in the battles they were fighting.

Minister of War Sidney Herbert, a friend of Florence, asked her to take a team of nurses to Turkey to try to improve the conditions there. In 1854, she and 38 volunteer nurses travelled to Scutari Hospital. There were not enough beds and many soldiers lay on the dirty floor. Their bandages were filthy, they had no clean water and only mouldy bread to eat. There were no proper toilets, and rats were everywhere. The soldiers were hungry, cold and in pain.

A clean sweep

Florence and her team cleaned the kitchens, and she hired a chef to cook better meals for the patients. She began a laundry to ensure that clothes and bedding were kept clean. The patients were washed, and their bandages were clean and changed regularly. She made sure that everyone washed their hands frequently.

Florence worked for up to 20 hours a day. At night, she walked around the wards with a lantern, making sure that the men were comfortable, and helping them to write letters home – hence ‘the lady with the lamp’. There was a marked fall in the hospital death rate.

An enduring legacy

When the war ended in 1856, Florence returned home a national hero. She began a campaign to improve the quality of nursing in all military hospitals. She conducted research on food, death rates and doctors’ training and campaigned for reform.

In 1857 she presented her research to the Sanitary Commission, which led to the establishment of the Army Medical College in Chatham. As a result of Florence’s work, the army began training doctors, hospitals became cleaner, and soldiers received better food and clothes.

In 1860, with the money she received from the government for her services during the Crimean War, she helped to found the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses in London. It was one of the first places to teach nursing as a formal profession. Thanks to Florence, nursing was now seen as a respected and honourable career.

She died on 13 August 1910, aged 90. Respecting her wishes, her family held a small funeral, despite the offer of an official burial in Westminster Abbey.

Nightingale Hospitals and Covid

Florence Nightingale’s devotion to nursing has inspired, and continues to inspire, nurses around the world. She is often regarded as the founder of modern nursing.

Her insistence on good hygiene and hand-washing remains relevant today. We were all told to reduce the spread of Covid 19 by washing our hands regularly.

The seven emergency NHS Nightingale hospitals that were opened in response to the pandemic were named after Florence. The improvements she made to both nursing and the running of hospitals back in the 19th century have helped us to cope with the current pandemic today. 

10 Fascinating Facts about Florence Nightingale

  • Florence developed an interest in helping others from an early age. As a child, she cared for sick pets and servants whenever she had the chance.
  • Florence was well-educated and could speak French, German and Italian.
  • Florence had an older sister called Parthenope (affectionately known as ‘Pop’). At first she was opposed to Florence’s decision to become a nurse, but later supported her sister’s work during the Crimean War.
  • When travelling home from Turkey, Florence gave her name as ‘Miss Smith’ so that no one knew who she was – she didn’t want a fuss.
  • In 1856 she met with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, discussing with them her time in Scutari, and her ideas for improving the military hospitals in Britain.
  • By the time she was 38, Florence was bedridden for most of her days due to an infection she never completely recovered from.
  • In 1859 Florence published a book called Notes on Nursing. At 76 pages long, it was full of hints and tips on nursing, for both nurses and the ‘ordinary woman’.
  • In 1870, Florence supported the founding of the British Red Cross, and gave advice on nursing and running hospitals.
  • In 1907, Florence was awarded the Order of Merit (a special award given by the monarch for her work in the development of nursing. She was the first woman to have received the honour.
  • A famous Nightingale quote: ‘I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse.’ 

Check out PlanBee’s ‘Florence Nightingale’ History scheme of work for Year 2, or the lesson focusing on Florence Nightingale in our British History Heroes scheme of work for Year 3 and Year 4. We also have a FREE ‘Pictures of Florence Nightingale Display Pack’ for you to download.

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