Women’s History Month: The Crimea and ‘The Lady with the Lamp’

Women’s History Month: The Crimea and ‘The Lady with the Lamp’

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SAN JOSE, March 23, 2014 — Vladmir Putin’s recent military occupation and annexation of the Crimean peninsula conjures up memories from another time that brings to mind the first Crimean War and an incredibly brave woman who was involved in that war, and emerged from that horrible conflict more famous than most of the combatant generals.

This remarkable woman was none other than Florence Nightingale.

Russia’s first foray into the Crimea came under Czar Nicholas I, when he decided to occupy and extend the nation’s control over two Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Walachia (modern-day Romania) because the Ottoman Empire reversed an agreement to allow the Russians to control the Christian relics located in the Holy Land. France under Napoleon III, influenced by Roman Catholic advisors, out-negotiated the czar and the Eastern Orthodox contingent who had traditionally been allowed such control. Using this as a pretext, Nicholas I mobilized his troops into the Ottoman area in the summer of 1853, and by autumn, the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia. Not surprisingly, Napoleon III persuaded Britain to join France in declaring war on Russia on March 28, 1854. Thus, the Crimean War commenced.

Although seldom remembered, the Crimean War was the first major war in which women served as military nurses. It was the British Army who deployed the female nurses primarily due to the bravery and determination of Florence Nightingale. This international conflict also happened to be the first major war that was covered by newspaper correspondents and recorded by photography. Sadly, well over a half a million men and boys died in this war.

Florence Nightingale became involved when the British Secretary of War, Sir Sidney Herbert, presented her with the opportunity to lead a group of trained nurses into the war zone to care for the wounded soldiers. This offer not only changed her life, but it changed the history of medical care as this little lady went on to become one of the most famous women in Europe.

Florence Nightingale’s story was not an easy one, though she was born into a very affluent  and prominent British family that belonged to elite social circles with high social standing in England. Her father, a wealthy landowner, took it upon himself to personally provide Florence with a classical education, including studies in German, French and Italian. However, by 16 years of age, she believed she was called by God to focus on nursing as a calling with divine purpose.  She wrote in her diary, “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for him alone without reputation.” Unfortunately, her parents did not share the inspiration. They essentially forbade her to pursue what was viewed as lowly menial labor and ultimately spurned by the upper class.

Her parents, like most parents of daughters in the Victorian Era, expected her to follow the societal norms established for young women of such social stature that she find a nice young wealthy gentleman and get married and raise a family. But this was not Florence Nightingale’s destiny. When she was 17 years old, she turned down a marriage proposal from such a fine young man named Richard Monckton Milnes. It was a significant blow to her parents, but she did not feel that she could pursue her nursing dream as a wife and mother. Yet, her parents seriously opposed her desire to become a nurse because the nursing profession in her day was not considered a substantive career, especially it did not represent a suitable profession for young women of the upper class.

In the 1840s in England, , nursing was considered lowly employment and few qualifications or little training was required as nurses mainly received on the job training. In addition, public perception regarded it as the kind of job women took when they were not able to find a good husband to care for them. Nevertheless, nursing was an acceptable means of employment for unmarried women. But, for Ms. Nightingale’s parents, they seemed more concerned about how their high society friends might react. Yet, Florence was a strong-minded young lady and managed to persuade her parents to let her study in Germany at a Lutheran facility called The Institution of Deaconesses at Kaiserwerth, which was a working hospital offering formal training for nurses.

Nightingale’s desire for additional education in the medical field and for practical training seemed insatiable. She also later received formal training in Paris with the Catholic Sisters of Charity at the Maison de la Providence (even though she was not a nun and not Catholic). She continued to study, but was offered the position of superintendent of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London, and served in this position from August 1853 until October 1854. But by this time, the British had deployed thousands of men and boys to the Crimean front and at least 18,000 soldiers had been admitted to field hospitals, which had become overwhelmed with the wounded and dying. Back in England, news of such hospitals being understaffed, unsanitary, and inhumane, generated public uproar.

It was in this dire period that Florence Nightingale received a letter from Secretary of War Sidney Herbert proposing that she organize a corps of nurses to deploy to the war zone and tend to sick and wounded soldiers. Nightingale had met Herbert years before, and had built a lasting acquaintance after she had shared her vision of nursing with him. He remained impressed with the young Ms. Nightingale, and in his position, he offered her an incredible opportunity to put her dream into action. She rose to the occasion by quickly assembling a volunteer team of 38 women nurses from a variety of religious orders, and sailed with them to Constantinople. They were deployed to Scutari, the main British camp and base hospital, and arrived in early November of 1854.

Despite being warned of the horrible conditions in the theater of war, Nightingale and her nurses were not totally prepared for the reality the soldiers had to endure in the overcrowded hospital. Nightingale and her nurses found bugs and rodents scurrying across filthy floors. In addition, the sewage system had broken down as well as the ventilation system, and when Nightingale voiced concerns over the stench and such unsanitary conditions, her concerns were met with indifference by male medical directors. The hospital was understaffed; consequently, the medical staff was severely overworked. There was also a serious shortage of even the most basic supplies like bandages, medicines, and soap. Even clean water had to be rationed. She also felt the lighting was inadequate and there was no means to process food.

The horrendous conditions were worse than what Nightingale and her nurses could imagine, but they were not deterred in their efforts to care for the soldiers who kept crowding into the hospital daily. Sadly, the reality was that more soldiers were dying from infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera than from the injuries they sustained on the battlefield. Mass infections were common and many of them became fatal. Nightingale quickly set to work and after procuring hundreds of scrub brushes and buckets, she and her nurses and less injured patients scrubbed the inside of the hospital from ceiling to floor. As well, Nightingale began focusing on care of the soldiers. She became one of the first to rise in the morning and one of the last to rest in the evenings.

Soldiers began calling her ”the Lady with the Lamp” as she moved through the dark aisles late into the night, carrying her lamp as she made her rounds from one bedside to another looking after patients. The soldiers were sincerely moved by her seemingly endless supply of energy and comforted by her genuine compassion.

In addition, while in Scutari, she had sent a plea to The Times in England about the horrible facilities at the hospital. This prompted the British government to deploy the Sanitary Commission in March 1855. The commission pumped out the sewers and improved ventilation. The mortality rate decreased. The government also commissioned private contractors to design and build a pre-fabricated, deployable hospital and shipped it to the area, and the civilian-run facility achieved a lower death rate.

In addition to drastically improving the sanitary conditions at Scutari, Nightingale created a number of valuable patient services that contributed to improving the quality of the soldier’s hospital stay. She established a laundry so that patients would have clean clothing and linens. She also instituted the creation of an “invalid’s kitchen” where the staff would cook appealing food for patients with special dietary requirements. She also created a library for patients to receive intellectual stimulation and entertainment. In addition, one of academic subjects Nightingale had mastered while younger was statistics, and being acknowledged as a statistician, when she finally went back to England, she compiled statistics on the mortality rates to help determine why they had been so high.

Today, although Americans are not too familiar with Florence Nightingale, she is considered a respected English social reformer and the founder of modern nursing. After the war, the British public collected quite a bit of money for her to establish a formal nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, which was the first secular nursing school in the world. It still exists as part of King’s College in London. Florence Nightingale had given so much of herself throughout her life that she became an inspiration to future generations. She truly viewed her life as a fulfillment of her dream, and near the end of her life she wrote to a friend, “God has blessed me with the fulfillment of my heart’s longings, I only hope I may see Him soon to thank Him for all the gifts He has given me.”

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