Ancient history

Florence Nightingale, the heroine of hospitals

"The Lady with the Lamp", or "Florence Nightingale at Scutari, 1854. Lithograph after a work by Henrietta Rae. Circa 1891. • WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A pale light flickers in the darkness of the hospital ward, that of the Turkish lantern that a young woman in her thirties, with chestnut hair and green eyes, takes with her to visit the sick. In the dark, the young woman bends over a dying man, strokes his forehead and speaks a few words of comfort. In the middle of the night, the wounded await his passage. They call on her, they want her to reassure them, to heal them, to show them a human and compassionate face in the terrible tragedy of the Crimean War which raged from 1853 to 1856.

A child of good society

Thus was born the legend of a complex and extraordinary figure:Florence Nightingale, one of the great heroines of British history who, by her courage and tenacity, did not bend to the rules of the rigid Victorian era and laid the foundations of modern nursing. Unconventional woman, determined, welcoming and at the same time fierce, she refused fame to continue practicing her altruistic activity.

The future nurse was born near Florence on May 12, 1820. Her father, William Edward Nightingale, was a wealthy bourgeois; his mother, Frances Smith, belongs to British high society. Her parents give her the name of the town near which she was born. The Nightingales return to England when their daughters are still children. They settled first in a luxurious Derbyshire mansion, then in Embley Park, Hampshire. William Nightingale and his wife give their daughters lessons in Greek, Latin, geography and mathematics, but also in sewing and embroidery, so that they become perfect wives, since such is then the only destiny of the girls. of good family in the Victorian world.

An unwavering vocation

But Florence is destined for another life. At 17, she suffered from a nervous breakdown which she defined as "the first call from God". At 24, she resolves to devote herself to the care of others, a vocation she decides to follow at all costs, despite the obstacles posed by her family. She turns down many suitors, including a cultured heir, Richard Monckton Milnes, who will always stand by her by becoming a member of the Nightingale Foundation. In a letter to her friend Mary Clark Mohl, Florence writes:"I shudder with indignation when I see mothers or certain wives displaying that ferocious selfishness which is called 'maternal love' or 'marital love.' No, everyone should have the right to speak their own truth. The way of Florence is to heal the sick with the help of God. Later, she would confess:"My mind is obsessed with human suffering, it assails me from all sides. I can barely perceive anything else. »

In 1852, Florence agreed to run a private clinic in London. Until then, only poor and marginalized women engaged in this activity.

Her family, in particular her mother and her sister, try by all means to hinder her plans, but the young woman persists. She left to study in Kaiserswerth, near Düsseldorf, in Prussia, in an institute of deaconesses which trained young women to care for the sick. Back in England, she watches over her sister, Parthenope, suffering from acute articular rheumatism, and takes care of her with selflessness.

In 1852, Florence was asked to run a private clinic in London. She accepts, determined to transform the nursing profession. Until then, only poor and marginalized women engaged in this activity, many of whom ended up sinking into alcoholism, between the filth of hospitals, the suffering of the sick and trying working conditions. Florence wants to give dignity to this profession, considered degrading at that time, with the intuition that at its foundation two aspects must prevail:preparation and hygiene. She also believes that all social classes should benefit from the care of the sick, and that they therefore deserve due consideration, even in a society as elitist as Victorian society.

Taking the test of the front

Florence Nightingale had the opportunity to demonstrate to her country and to the whole world the validity of her ideas when the Crimean War broke out, where the French and the British fought – and died – against the Russians. The Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert, whom Florence had met during a stay in Rome, asked her to go to the front to treat the wounded. On November 4, 1854, Florence arrived in Scutari (now Üsküdar, a district of Istanbul) with 38 Catholic and Protestant volunteers. After a year of fighting, the soldiers are exhausted and hit by an epidemic of cholera.

Also read:Anesthesia:in 1844, the first chance operation

At first, Florence's relationship with the doctors is not easy, because they refuse to recognize the authority of a woman who is only a simple nurse. Little by little, Florence manages to impose herself and, above all, to impose her rules:she orders the airing and thorough cleaning of the hospital rooms, asks her colleagues to wash the patients and change the sheets, organizes a laundry and hires a French cook, Alexis Soyer, who prepares healthy meals for the sick. The situation improved significantly in a short time. Today, these measures are obvious rules of hygiene and care. At the time, field hospitals were a chaos of screams, blood and filth. Florence also requires that the beds in which interventions are carried out be isolated by a curtain, in order to avoid psychological trauma and to respect the privacy of patients. Finally, she gathered statistical data and observations which she published in a fundamental text, published in 1859:Notes on Nursing (Des caring for the sick, 1862).

Famous despite herself

Florence quickly becomes a celebrity. In London, the newspapers speak of her as a heroine, and people are passionate about her devotion. Even after contracting the so-called Crimean fever, she continued to work tirelessly:during the day, she took care of the sick and spent the night at their bedside to comfort them and write letters to their parents. Back in England, the welcome is triumphant. Although she refuses to show herself in public - "To be a worthy servant of God, the first temptation that must be overcome is the desire to shine in society", she asserts - she is acclaimed, and the his wax statue is exhibited at the Madame-Tussauds museum.

Also read:Paracelsus, the fight of a visionary doctor

From 1857, Florence's state of health was precarious, and she often had to take to her bed. This did not prevent her from taking care of St Thomas' Hospital from 1859 and founding there, in 1860, the Florence Nightingale School of nurses and midwives. There, she trains, with severity and rigor, young women of good society so that they become nurses and pass on her teachings. Even foreign heads of state wrote to Florence asking for her advice. As a reward for her tireless work, Queen Victoria decorated her with the Royal Red Cross in 1883, and the founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, pays tribute to him by declaring that Florence Nightingale is the person who influenced him the most.

Florence Nightingale died at the age of 90 on August 13, 1910. A few days after her death, a crowd of aristocrats, civil servants, nurses and ordinary people came to pay their last respects at the Church of Saint -Marguerite d'East Wellow, this woman who, with pride, humility and tenacity, has given her letters of nobility to a profession as admirable as it is necessary.

Find out more
The Lady with the Lamp. A Life of Florence Nightingale, G. Sinoué, Gallimard (Folio), 2009.

Florence Nightingale was born in the villa La Colombaia, near Florence, into a wealthy English family.
Florence's father, who supported her in her projects, financed her trip to Italy, Egypt, Greece and Germany.
Florence travels to Scutari (now Üsküdar), on the Asian side of Istanbul, to tend to the wounded of the Crimean War.
She is decorated with the Royal Red Cross , a British medal honoring military nurses.
She died at home in London. A museum dedicated to him is founded at St-Thomas Hospital.

Comfort in Affliction
At the Crimean Hospital, Florence Nightingale's presence is as beneficial as her care for the wounded. A soldier said, “She would talk to one and nod to the others, she smiled at them, but couldn't do it for all. There were hundreds of us lying there, but we could give his shadow a kiss when it fell on us. A Times correspondent writes:"She is an angel of kindness without any exaggeration, and when her slender figure glides silently through the corridors, gratitude softens every man's countenance on seeing her." »

Take an oath
In 1893, the committee of a Detroit hospital endorses the "Florence Nightingale Oath", which new nurses in the United States have since taken. It begins:“I solemnly swear before God and in the presence of this assembly to live a clean life and to practice my profession faithfully. »

Mary Seacole, the other unsung heroine
Scutari Hospital, where Florence Nightingale worked during the Crimean War, was built over foul sewers. After rejecting the idea that it could affect the health of the wounded, Florence realizes the truth at the end of the war, finding that, of all the British hospitals in Crimea, the highest death rate was precisely that of her hospital. The public, on the other hand, left in the background the perhaps more effective work of another nurse, Mary Seacole, who traveled to Crimea on her own and treated the war wounded from a hotel near the front.