The legend of the "Lady with the Lamp"

27 February 2020

Back in 19th Century Britain, nurses were widely regarded as a lowly lot, their profession best befitting impoverished, mainly elderly women whose abrasive bedside manner left much to be desired.

That image was forever changed by the life-saving “Lady with the Lamp”, Florence Nightingale, whose passion for the poor, infirmed and injured, helped pioneer healthcare as we know it today. The International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife is also the bicentenary of the world’s most famous nurse, who was born in Florence, Italy, to an upper-class British family in 1820.

Much to the misgivings of her wealthy parents young Florence opted to pursue what she believed was a divine, deeper calling … nursing. Later a prolific publisher and campaigner on healthcare issues, Nightingale championed the need for midwife nurses and the importance of building design, diet and sanitation to the body’s ability to recover. In 1860, she opened the Nightingale School of Nursing in London, which became a model for training schools around the world.

She famously led a team of female nurses into Turkey during the Crimean war of the 1850s to tend to injured British soldiers, carrying a lamp with her during the night to check on their condition. Nightingale instigated a royal commission and worldwide medical reforms after proving that most soldiers at the British base hospital in Turkey had died from infection and disease than from their battle wounds. The tireless efforts of her team to improve sanitary conditions at the hospital are said to have cut the death toll by two thirds.

Nightingale’s personal war on disease and bad sanitation spread also to the British Army in India where overcrowding and contamination were rife.

Such was her popularity in Britain, donations began to flood into the Nightingale Fund and Nightingale-trained nurses were dispatched to hospitals to all corners of the planet, including Australia. The Lady with the Lamp, the inspiration behind the International Red Cross, was in 1907 the first woman to receive Britain’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Merit. The Red Cross Florence Nightingale Medal is still to this day awarded to nurses who have excelled in their duty of care.

Credited with inspiring generations of young women to take up the now highly respectable profession of nursing, Nightingale died in London on August 13, 1910, aged 90. Her grave lies in East Wellow, Hampshire.

The Florence Nightingale Museum now sits on the banks of the River Thames, opposite London’s Houses of Parliament, while International Nurses Day, May 12 annually, commemorates her birth date.