National Nurses’ Week in United States concludes on May 12, commemorating the birthday of England’s Florence Nightingale, whose museum we visited in summer 2013. Appropriately enough, you’ll find the Florence Nightingale museum at London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital, where she established a nursing school in 1860.
Florence Nightingale is credited as the founder of modern nursing, an innovative and head strong woman, ahead of her time in the use of the media and public relations to advance her cause and, in the process, she changed health care around the world. The museum describes Nightingale as the most influential Victorian woman after Queen Victoria herself!
Florence Nightingale, named for the city where she was born in Italy, grew up in a wealthy British household. The museum describes her life in a “gilded cage,” reinforced by the displays of high hedge rows, having you feel somewhat trapped. She was educated at home, including tutoring in mathematics from her father. Her understanding of math and statistics greatly benefitted her.
Another sign of her uniqueness, Nightingale had a pet owl named Athena, which the museum describes as “ill tempered.” She found the baby owl on the Acropolis, raised it and took it all over the world, often carrying it on her shoulder or in her pocket. When you’re part of a wealthy family, you can be a bit eccentric. The museum has stuffed toy owls in the gift shop.
Nightingale’s family was aghast at her rebellion and refusal to get married. In fact, they banned her from nursing, but Nightingale felt called by God to pursue nursing. She eventually received nursing training and became superintendent of a hospital for “gentlewomen” in London.
With reports of deplorable conditions on the warfront in the Crimea, where 90 percent of soldiers were dying of disease and infection, the Minister of War invited Nightingale to visit the military hospitals in Turkey to integrate nurses there, and she brought nearly 40 nurses on the journey. Medical thinking at that time was that soldiers need to “tough it out,” but Nightingale pushed for compassion and managing the soldiers’ emotional as well as physical needs.
What’s also interesting about Nightingale is her business sense, with an understanding the benefits of record keeping and statistics to prove her points and bring about reform. In fact, she is credited with inventing the pie chart! She organized the hospitals to improve supplies and cleanliness. She also set up a banking system for the soldiers, so they wouldn’t lose all their money gambling.
As you can imagine, such strong opinions rubbed some people the wrong way, including many doctors. Some of the nurses said Nightingale was too demanding. But that hard headedness led to many changes that still influence how medicine is practiced today.
With the rise of reporting and newspapers, Nightingale used the media to reveal the horrors of war and convert supporters to her cause. One display says that Nightingale hated the “buzz fuzz” of celebrity, but she realized that fame gave her power and the ability to affect change. She certainly knew how to use her brand.
Of course, she is known for her compassion, famously carrying a Turkish lamp (also known as a fanoos) through the wards at night to ensure that all was well. This earned her the name as the “Lady with the Lamp.” Apparently many artists drew the lamp as more like a Greek or genie lamp, but you can see a real Turkish lamp at the museum.
In our next post, more about Nightingale’s reforms and an appropriately Nightingale-inspired gift shop item.