Who was Florence Nightingale?

Florence Nightingale was born in 1820 in the city after which she was named. Her parents were British and she was raised in London. Hers was a well-off family and she had access to education from a very young age. Nonetheless, wealthy women like Florence were not expected to work but rather to get married, look after the home, read, sew and attend social events.

Florence, however, felt it was her call from God to become a nurse. At that time, though, only women could become nurses, the job was not recognized as it is today, hospitals were everything but hygienic and sanitized places and most of the time nurses didn’t have any training at all. But bear with me, because Florence Nightingale changed it all.

Florenced studied nursing in Germany and a few years later she was running a women’s hospital in London. There, she worked to improve the working conditions and the care patients received.

In October 1853, the Crimean War started. This war confronted the Russian Empire with an alliance consisting of the United Kingdom, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia and took place in the Crimean peninsula. British soldiers soon started dying from wounds and injuries, infectious diseases and hunger as they were not receiving the medical assistance they needed.

In 1854, Florence and 38 other nurses trained by herself travelled to the Crimean peninsula to treat the wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War. When the team of nurses got there, they were horrified at the state and conditions of the war hospital where British soldiers were sent. The place was overcrowded, dirty, with broken drains and toilets, rats running around and there was not enough supply of food, blankets and medical equipment. Due to these antihygienic conditions, many soldiers died from infectious diseases and this is where Florence’s work in the Crimean peninsula started to be crucial.

Not only did she purchase better medical equipment, improved overall hospital conditions as well as patient care so fewer and fewer soldiers died from infectious diseases, Nightingale wanted to bring this issue to the British Parliament. She also helped soldiers to write letters if they were not able to and at night she would visit the wounded men to make sure they were comfortable. As she walked with a lantern during these nightly visits, Florence is also known as the Lady with the Lamp.

She had kept a record of monthly deaths by injuries, zymotic diseases and other causes among the soldiers between April 1854 and March 1856 to denounce the conditions in which she and her team found the war hospital in the Crimean peninsula. Florence represented the monthly deaths segregated by cause in polar-area graphs, as the image below shows, which were afterwards named Nightingale rose plots in her honor.

Moreover, based on her observations during the Crimean War, Florence wrote Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army, which was a massive report published in 1858 analyzing her experience and proposing reforms for other military hospitals. The fact that she had collected real data and presented it to government authorities to influence future political decisions based on empirical evidence makes of Florence, in a way, a statistician.

From that moment on, the British Army started training war doctors and hospital conditions were improved. Moreover, in 1860, Florence opened the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in St Thomas Hospital in London with the money she received as a prize from Queen Victoria for her service. Her school provided excellent nurse training and made nursing a respectable career for those women who wanted to work outside the home.

In 1907, Florence Nightingale became the first woman to ever receive the Order of Merit, an award to distinguish her service in the army and for the country. She died in 1910, at 90 years of age, and she is still remembered as the founder of modern nursing.

Nowadays, Florence Nightingale is still regarded as a heroine. However, her name is also a source of controversies and open debates. I won’t talk about her privilege with respect to other nurses with whom she worked, which was a clear factor of why her job was so quickly recognized. In fact, Nightingale didn’t deny that higher social status had its merits for administrators in nursing. Instead, I will talk about her views on women and women’s rights.

One may expect that Florence Nightingle, who acted rebelliously when she decided to run away from her “social responsibilities” as an upper-class woman and put her life on her own hands, would be a feminist and a fighter for women’s rights. However, this is not the case. Some letters with John Stuart Mill reveal that she refused to join the women’s suffrage committee, which is in itself a source of other controversies. Even though Florence became an inspiration to all those women who wished to have a job outside the house, her methods are quite questionable. Some academics have pointed out that she paved the way for the transformation of nursing into a respected career by imposing sexist rules to the nurses she worked with, mainly purity and submission. Moreover, she admitted that women would never be able to perform as good as men in some fields. In particular, she criticized the few women who studied Medicine at that time stating that women who tried to be men eventually became third-rate men. Controversies aside, her impact on modern nursing must not be forgotten.

On May 12th 2020, the 200 year anniversary of Florence’s birth was celebrated and several initiatives to honor her emerged. I participated in a data analysis competition organized by RLadies Spain where my teammate and I explored the records of monthly death causes Florence kept during her stay in the Crimean peninsula. In addition, we tried to establish statistical relationships between variables. You can check our project contribution here and download our report here.