SAN JOSE: Easter comes on the heels of Women’s History Month this year. This makes a fitting time to focus on Florence Nightingale. Nightingale became one of the most devoted women in history, putting into practice Jesus Christ’s message of service to humanity. It is unlikely that many Christians would make the connection between Florence Nightingale and Jesus Christ. While her life accounts rarely narrate her heavenly inspiration, Nightingale singularly impacted nursing and the role of the war nurses corp.
Who was Florence Nightingale?
Florence Nightingale was far more than an English social reformer and the founder of modern nursing. More than just a woman who became famous as a nurse during a horrible war, Florence Nightingale became a hospital administrator and provocative writer.
What may have been lost to history is Nightingale’s genuine relationship with God. She became divinely inspired to serve humanity in her best possible manner.
In her writings, Florence Nightingale describes four “calls” from God. The first was in 1837 when she was 17-years-old. She sincerely believed God called her for a divine purpose and that her calling was nursing.
She wrote in her diary,
“God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for Him alone without reputation.”
Coming from a life of privilege
Florence Nightingale was born to privilege, and her parents, especially her mother, did not approve of her divine inspiration. They were concerned about their daughter’s reputation, as well as the reputation of their affluent family.
The clash of wills with her parents became a conflict in Nightingale’s early life. Born into a very wealthy and prominent British family, the family lived within elite social circles with very high social standings in England. Her father, a wealthy landowner, took it upon himself to provide Florence and her older sister with a classical education, including studies in German, French and Italian.
Nightingale’s parents, like many protective parents of daughters during the Victorian Era, expected her to follow the societal norms established for young women of such social stature.
Nightingale’s well-to-do parent’s expectation was for her to find a nice wealthy gentleman, marry and raise a family. They essentially forbade her to pursue her dream of nursing, seen as lowly menial labor by the upper class.
The rebellion of Florence Nightingale
At 24 years of age, Nightingale refused the marriage proposal from a young man named Richard Monckton Milnes. To Florence’s parents, rejection of such a marriage proposal was a significant blow. They felt her youthful dream to pursue nursing was basically nonsense, and blocked her path to pursue her divine calling.
To be fair, the parent’s opposition to Florence Nightingale’s desire to become a nurse was because, in 1840’s England, nursing was lowly employment requiring few qualifications or little training. Learning nursing skills was via “on the job training.”
Public perception regarded it a job women took when they were not able to find a good husband. It was also not considered a career for young women of the upper class. Nevertheless, for Ms. Nightingale’s parents, it is likely they were concerned over the reaction of their high society friends.
Studying nursing in German
After a long struggle with her parents, Nightingale eventually freed herself from her family entanglements. She was able to persuade her parents to let her study in Germany at a Lutheran facility called The Institution of Deaconesses at Kaiserwerth. Kaiserwerth was a working hospital offering formal training for nurses.
One of her diary entries in this period revealed an important resolution during this time of struggle:
“I am thirty, the age at which Christ began his mission. Now no more childish things, no more vain things, no more love, no more marriage. Now Lord, let me only think of Thy will.”
From the time of her first vision at 17 until she turned 32, Florence Nightingale struggled with her identity. Her calling to serve others vied with the proper Victorian and feminine ideal of a woman – a wife and a mother.
In the course of her struggles, Florence Nightingale fortified her genuine relationship with God, and this gave her the strength and the courage to fight against the “normal” expectations for women of Victorian England.
Continuing her formal training in Paris
Nightingale’s desire to continue her medical education and practical training were insatiable. She eventually 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, and 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.
Creating the Nurse’s Corps to respond to the Crimean War wounded
Within this same period, the British government had entered the Crimean war. This meant deploying thousands of men and boys to the front lines in Turkey. It was the first major war in which women were called to serve as military nurses. This international conflict also happened to be the first world war that was covered by newspaper correspondents and war photographers.
Sadly, well over a half a million men and boys died in this war. By 1854, at least 18,000 soldiers had been admitted to field hospitals overwhelmed with the wounded and dying. Back in England, news of such hospitals being understaffed, unsanitary, and inhumane, generated a public uproar.
Florence Nightingale shared her vision of nursing with British Secretary of War Sir Sidney Herbert years before. Seeing the need on the battlefield, Herbert empowered Nightingale to organize the Nurse’s Corps whose role was to tend to the soldiers wounds. Nightingale rose to the occasion by quickly by assembling a volunteer team of 38 women nurses from a variety of religious orders sailing with them to the city of Constantinople.
Sent to Scutari, the nurse’s corps arrived at the main British camp and base hospital in early November of 1854.
The horrendous conditions in the theater of war were worse than what Nightingale and her nurses could imagine. Nightingale and her nurse’s corps were not ready for the reality of the battlefield hospital, including bugs and rodents scurrying across filthy floors.
However, the nurse’s efforts to care for the steady stream soldiers arriving at the hospital never wavered.
Mass infections were common and many of them became fatal.
The Nurse’s Corps saw soldiers dying from infectious diseases. Typhoid and cholera were killing more soldiers than battlefield injuries. Nightingale quickly set to work with her nurses to scrub the inside of the hospital from ceiling to floor. As Nightingale began caring for the soldiers, she was the first to rise in the morning, and the last to rest in the evenings.
Nightingale would move through the dark aisles late into the night. Carrying her lamp while making rounds from one bedside to another. During this time, the soldiers began calling Florence Nightingale “the Lady with the Lamp.”
The soldiers were sincerely moved by her seemingly endless supply of energy. Her genuine compassion was truly comforting to the recovering soldiers.
Florence Nightingale and her war legacy
More importantly, Florence Nightingale’s efforts did improve the sanitary conditions of the field hospitals. Thus lowering the troops’ mortality rate. Due to the bravery and determination of Florence Nightingale, the British Army sent more female nurses to their field hospitals.
After the war, the British public collected quite a bit of money for Nightingale to establish a formal nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London becoming the first secular nursing school in the world. It still exists as part of King’s College in London.
Florence Nightingale gave so much of herself throughout her life that she left an indelible imprint in her day and became an inspiration to future generations.
She truly saw her life as a fulfillment of her dream. 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.”
Florence Nightingale’s calling and devotion did change the history of medical care. Nightingale went on to become one of the most famous women in Europe. Her name becoming more recognizable than most of the combatant generals.
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