These articles on Real Women of Genius begin with Florence Nightingale, the founder of nursing as we know it today. She is perhaps best known for the role she played as a nurse in the Crimean War and for her passionate patient care.
You were, I believe, born of English parents but not in this country?
That is correct. I was born on 12 May 1820 in Italy – Florence, to be precise, from which I take my name. My father, William, to whom I was very close, was a landowner. We didn’t want for anything.
How was it that you came to be borne in Florence, Italy?
My parents were touring Europe at the time.
What about your education?
My father saw to it that I was properly educated, and I had a thorough grounding in mathematics, history, philosophy, Greek, Latin, French, German and Italian.
What was expected of you as a young woman from a respectable family in those days?
It was expected that I would marry well, have children and live appropriately. I did not believe that was for me and I turned down proposals of marriage, to the great disappointment of my mother and father.
May I ask why that was?
I felt that I had been called by God to undertake some greater task, although at first it was not clear to me what that was. By the age of 25 I had plucked up the courage to tell my parents that is what I wanted to do.
Unfortunately, nursing was regarded as something to be undertaken by working-class women, and they were absolutely against the idea.
You had some difficulties with your own health, didn’t you?
I was particularly subject to bouts of depression from my teens and, given my particular background, wondered what use I could be.
Eventually, your parents had a change of heart about nursing, didn’t they?
Fortunately, yes. In 1851 I was permitted to travel to Germany where I undertook nursing training for a period of three months. Two years later I took a position in Harley Street as Superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen.
It was around that time, I understand, that Russia invaded Turkey?
Yes. Britain and France were concerned about Russia’s expanding power, and assisted Turkey.
This was the Crimean War, as it became known, and it wasn’t long before reports were circulating that British soldiers were contracting serious disease?
And it was very soon after so many of them arrived. Malaria and cholera were prevalent among the
troops. Over 8,000 of them became ill
with these diseases.
When reports of this began to appear in the newspapers, the public began to protest about it. Naturally I, too, was very concerned so offered nursing services to the government.
And was that offer accepted?
I don’t think they were so very keen on the idea, but given the public unrest they felt they had to do something. So along with the 38 volunteers that I had trained, we were sent to the British base at Balaklava.
What did you find upon your arrival?
Hygiene was so appalling that it had reached the point of almost total neglect. There was very little to offer as far as medicines were concerned, and infection was rife. People were dying because of it.
I wrote to The Times about it and, as a result of my representations, Brunel was commissioned by the government to design a prefabricated hospital. This was built in England and shipped out to us.
Did you attribute the deaths primarily to hygiene?
It was clearly a cause.
Far, far more soldiers died from illnesses than from the wounds
inflicted in battle. There was
inadequate ventilation and defective sanitation.
More than six months after my arrival, the Sanitary Commission arrived, made improvements and the death rate dropped.
My own view is that so much of the problem was attributable to soldiers being overworked, insufficient supplies and poor diet. The dreadful living conditions contributed so greatly to the problem.
Sadly, my ideas for improving military hospitals were not well received at first and were seen as an assault upon the professionalism of the doctors and military officers.
There was, however, a greater recognition for your work during the Crimean War, wasn’t there?
Thankfully so. There was a public meeting at which a fund was created in order to fund the training of nurses and donations were extremely generous.
So much money was contributed that in 1860 I was able to set up the Nightingale Training School at St Thomas’s Hospital.
That is now part of King’s College, London, and is known as the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery. You also wrote about nursing?
You must be referring to my Notes on Nursing which I wrote for nursing education. It was an introduction to nursing.
And also as a result of your work trained nurses was introduced into the workhouses?
Yes, so instead of sick paupers being cared for by the more able-bodied, they were cared for by properly trained nurses.
You had a particular gift for mathematics, I understand?
Yes, and the presentation of statistical graphs. I developed the polar area diagram which is a sort of pie chart. It showed seasonal sources of patient mortality in military field hospitals that I managed.
Civil servants and Members of Parliament would have been unlikely to read – or even understand – traditional statistical reporting, so it was a useful method of presentation to them.
Didn’t you also give some advice to the Union government in the American Civil War?
I did, although that too met with some resistance. I was able to mentor America’s first trained nurse, Linda Richards. When she returned to the United States she set up nursing homes and pioneered nursing both in the States and in Japan.
And many of the nurses you trained eventually became matrons at leading hospitals. You received a number of honours in recognition of your work, didn’t you?
I was presented with the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria in 1883, I was appointed a Lady of Grace of the Order of St John in 1904, and with the Order of Merit in 1907. I believe I was the first woman to receive that honour. After that I was also given the Honorary Freedom of the City of London.
You lived until the age of 90 years, didn’t you?
That is so. I died in my sleep at my Mayfair home.
Keep your eyes open for more Real Women of Genius as they are added to this site and look also at Real Men of Genius for further examples.
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