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This week marks 200 years since Florence Nightingale’s birth and due to the world’s current climate it is a more important time than ever to commemorate her life and contributions towards the advancement of healthcare and medicine, write Millie and Keomi in Year 11. 

Here at Embley, we are lucky enough to be situated in the grounds in which Florence and her family resided from 1825 onwards, with Florence Nightingale even receiving her first ‘call from God’ on the grounds in 1837.

This call from God came to her at the age of 17, viewing this message as a calling for her to reduce human suffering. Despite opposition from her parents and societal norms, Florence decided to pursue a career in nursing. Due to the poor reputation of nurses, it took years for her father to be convinced to allow her to follow through with her vision, only allowing her to study nursing at a Christian school for women in Germany in 1851. Through her studies, she learnt how to care for patients and the importance of cleanliness in hospitals which, at the time, were filthy and unsanitary. Only two years later, in 1853, Florence had excelled in her studies and began to run a women’s hospital in London, drastically improving both working conditions and patient care.

In 1854, the Crimean War broke out. British, French and Turkish soldiers battled their way through Crimea, a region in Southern Russia, and news returned home of thousands of soldiers dying due to lack of proper healthcare and severely infected wounds. Sidney Hubert – the British Minister of War – had heard of Florence Nightingale’s wondrous improvements to her hospital and knew that she was the only solution to helping the wounded soldiers in the Crimea.

Florence immediately accepted this offer, and together with her team of volunteer nurses headed off to Scutari, where all of the wounded soldiers were being sent. The hospital was severely overcrowded, with little to no beds, causing wounded men to lie in agony on the filthy ground, where rats ran freely. Toilets and drains were broken, there was not enough medical equipment and clean water and fresh food was nowhere to be found. As a result of this, disease and infection spread quickly between both soldiers and nurses, being the leading cause of their deaths.

In order to combat this, Florence used money from her own pocket to purchase better medical equipment and food, as well as hiring workmen to fix the appliances. She let the windows open, allowing fresh air to run through the hospital as her and her nurses constructed a kitchen and cleaned the wards before able to provide proper care to the soldiers. They bathed them, dressed their wounds and fed them fresh meals – and after only a short period of time, infection and disease reduced in the hospital. Florence would visit the soldiers as they slept every night, making sure they were comfortable, thus earning her the nickname ‘the Lady with the Lamp’ due to the lantern she took with her.

In addition to this, she worked hard as a statistician during a time when women were a rare presence in such fields. Florence Nightingale is often regarded as one of the most prominent statisticians in history, using her passion and love for statistics as a child to save lives of soldiers during the Crimean war, and work in data visualisation which still holds influence to this day. From the moment she arrived at Scutari, Florence began accumulating data. Through this, she discovered just how high the mortality rates were and that the poor sanitary practice was the main cause of this. In order to curb such easily avoidable deaths, Florence applied her statistical methods, and managed to eliminate the contributors to the unsafe and unhealthy environment.

She also contributed to statistical data visualisation, filling her notes with tables and diagrams. Arguably, her most well-known was the ‘coxcomb’, which is still in use today. The coxcomb is similar to a pie chart, but more intricate. Through the use of this, she was able to represent complex information in an easily understandable way, finding a way to simplify data and establish her as a role model to all women and the world of medicine.

As a result of this there was a profound change, nursing became a well-respected profession, conditions in hospitals both nationally and globally improved dramatically, and the world of medicine changed forever.

When she returned to Britain in 1856, she was highly regarded as an expert on nursing and hospitals, as the newspaper reports of her work in the war had made her famous. Nightingale published her book, Notes on Hospitals in 1859, which established excellent recommendations for hospitals about space, ventilation and cleanliness. This knowledge she had obtained throughout her time in the Crimean war greatly reduced the death rate and, although she believed in the theory of miasma, it aided in her beliefs of making hospitals more hygienic, which therefore reduced infection. Once this method was taken up, death rates began to remain low, majorly decelerating since prior to her work. In addition, she produced ward designs (called Nightingale wards), which were developed in response to her realisation that hospital buildings themselves affected the health and recovery of patients, and this still influences their modern design today.

Nightingale wards consisted of a large room with the beds at a distance alongside each other, which allowed nurses to easily observe and tend to patients-this was particularly effective if there was a lot of patients that needed tending to. Of course, the windows would be wide open to allow fresh air, and the environment would be hygienic to reduce infection of the patients, as her book Notes on Hospitals mentions. In addition, Florence Nightingale persuaded the government to set up a royal commission into the health of the army, illustrating the need for sanitary reform in all military hospitals. This further helped improve mortality rates of soldiers, that would have been low before, and made the government aware of actions that needed to be done in order to solidify her knowledge into society and take advantage of her expertise.

Not only did Florence Nightingale completely revolutionise nursing and health standards, she also broke the prevailing ideologies towards nurses at the time. Before her influence, nursing was considered an unimportant, low status job, and there was no formal training due to its unpopularity. Few women were doctors as people thought they were not as intelligent as men, and they were expected to stay at home, tending to their husbands. However, Florence Nightingale made it acceptable for women to train as nurses, and nursing became a respected and appreciated profession, one that is heavily relied upon since. Her book gave advice and discussed the nurse’s personal cleanliness and role in taking care of the patient, and it was so popular it was translated into 11 different languages. This shows that Nightingale’s ideas about training for nurses had a great influence, even outside of Britain, and inspired many young women to follow in her footsteps. This book also helped poor people learn how to take care of themselves if they could not afford private healthcare, conveying the compassion Florence Nightingale had for everyone, and her willingness to help. The Nightingale Training School was established in 1860 at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, and its positive reputation soon spread until nightingale nurses were requested to start new schools all over the world including Africa, Australia and America. The expansion of Nightingale’s influence shows how prominent her work was and illustrates just how much of an impact she made, especially for the roles of women. In her 1859 book Suggestions for thoughts to searchers after religious truths, she argued strongly for the removal of restrictions that prevented women from having careers and proved herself to be one of the very first feminists, and in response leading women to a better future. 

Florence Nightingale’s forward-thinking reforms have influenced the very nature of modern medicine and have continued to inspire people presently. Her hard, selfless work especially parallels today, with the nurses fighting admirably against Coronavirus, saving lives every single day. Florence Nightingale’s legacy has never been more relevant, and her key nursing values, including regularly washing hands and maintaining good hygiene, have been widely echoed by many, especially following Covid-19. The NHS has given the name Nightingale to five temporary hospitals for Covid-19 patients, and this recognises her relevance, especially to tackling infectious diseases just as she did in the Crimean War.

After his time in intensive care at St. Thomas’s Hospital, the very place where the first Nightingale School for Nurses was established, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, highly commended the two ‘hero’ nurses who spent their time looking after him. He stated that he “owed them his life”, which clearly reinforces the significant impact nursing has, not only on the health of the population as a whole, but the lives of individuals. Florence Nightingale kickstarted this improved society, and she has stayed with us ever since.

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