Heroes of Science: Florence Nightingale

Born into a wealthy middle-class family, Florence Nightingale was expected to grow up to marry and take care of her home, but she had other ideas. From the age of 16, she believed she had a calling from God, telling her that she should help the sick and injured by becoming a nurse. At the time, nursing was considered a job for poor, elderly women with a reputation for drunkenness and bad language, and so her parents disapproved of her chosen vocation. However, Florence was determined to fulfil what she believed was her moral duty, and travelled to a hospital in Germany to begin training.

By the time she was 33, she was running a hospital for women in London, but then the Crimean War began. British, French and Turkish soldiers were fighting with the Russians, and reports that the wounded were not receiving proper medical care were reaching home. Britain’s minister of war was friends with Florence, and so asked her to organise a team of nurses to travel to the Scutari hospital in Turkey and help out.

When Florence and the nurses arrived, they were shocked by what they found. The hospital was filthy, with many of the patients lying among rats on the cold, hard floor, and just about surviving on a diet of mouldy bread and meat. Cholera and typhus were rife, and the unsanitary conditions meant that many soldiers were more likely to die from these diseases than their war wounds.

Florence knew that something needed to be done, but the army doctors were unwelcoming of change. However, as the wards became more overcrowded, they quickly realised help was needed, and so let Florence get to work. She cleaned up the wards, organised more blankets and beds, and arranged for a chef to prepare better meals. After working for 20 hours each day she would then wander around the wards at night with a lantern, checking on the patients. This earned her the nickname ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ and by the time she returned from the war, she was a heroine.

The British public set up the Nightingale Fund so she could continue her important work, and she used the donations to open a training school for nurses. Her students were given practical training and comfortable living quarters, and were soon requested to start new schools in Australia, America and Africa.

Although Florence spent much of the remainder of her life bedridden due to illness, she continued to campaign for improvements to medical care. By the time she passed away, she had written over 200 books, reports and pamphlets about nursing, and helped transform it into a respectable career for people all around the world.

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