Early years

Florence Nightingale was named after her birthplace in Italy, where she was born in 1820. Her maternal grandfather was an MP for Norwich, and her father, William, inherited a Derbyshire estate and money made from lead, cotton and property from his great-uncle. In 1825, William purchased Embley Park in Hampshire, with Lea Hurst remaining their summer home. William unusually taught Florence chemistry, physics, mathematics, languages and history, amongst other subjects. As a teenager she visited the sick poor near her homes, and nursed family members when sick. The Nightingales were well-connected with the intelligentsia of their day, and dining companions included Mary Somerville, Charles Darwin and Lord Palmerston. In 1839, Florence was presented at the Queen's drawing room. Florence was attractive and intelligent and attracted several marriage proposals, all of which she refused. At 16, Florence recorded that she received her first call from God to His service.

Blue diagram created by Florence Nightingale to show cause of patient mortality

Call to nursing

In 1844, Florence first considered a life in nursing. In 1847, whilst travelling in Italy, she began her survey of European hospitals. In 1849, she toured Egypt and Greece, visiting more hospitals. In 1850 she spent two weeks at the Kaiserswerth Institute of Deaconesses in Germany, learning about nursing. She spent a further three months at Kaiserswerth in 1851, where she gained experience in dressing wounds, bandaging, preparing and issuing medicine, application of leeches and assisting at operations. In early 1853, the Ladies' Committee of the Establishment for Gentlewomen during Illness, in London, asked Florence to be Superintendent. She began work in August after spending time nursing the sick at the Maison de la Providence in Paris. Florence's goal was to train nurses in 1854, King's College Hospital offered her the post of Superintendent of Nurses. She handed in her notice at the Establishment, planning a move to King's or another hospital.

Black and white drawing of a young Florence Nightingale

Nursing in times of conflict

On 9 October 1854, Florence read in The Times about the lack of nursing care at the Scutari Crimean War hospital in Turkey, and soon offered to go and help. She agreed to take 38 nurses with her and they arrived on 4 November. In total 229 women were to nurse in the war hospitals. Florence remained in Turkey and the Crimea until July 1856. Meanwhile, at home, Florence was a celebrity, and in the summer of 1855 a fund for a nursing training school was established. By June 1856 the fund had raised £44,039 (over £2 million in today).

Black and white photograph of Florence Nightingale surrounded by trainee nurses

Training the nurses of tomorrow

In the autumn of 1856, Florence convinced Queen Victoria and Lord Panmure at the War Office to appoint a Royal Commission on the Health of the Army. She worked with representations of statistics including coxcomb diagrams of causes of mortality which were probably the first pie-charts, and was inspired by statistician William Farr. She was also involved in numerous hospital designs, publishing Notes on Hospitals in 1859, and much expanded in 1863. Notes on Nursing: What it is and what it is not, Florence's best-selling book was first published in 1859. She wrote many more books, papers and reports. In the 1860s, she was regularly consulted on health matters by the War Office.

In 1858-9, Florence chose St. Thomas' Hospital as the location for her nurse training school, with the first nurses starting training on 9 July 1860. She selected the nurses trained there for positions around the country and the globe. She was widely consulted by people establishing trained nursing in hospitals. She also piloted a midwifery training school at King's College Hospital from 1861, but it only lasted six years due to economic and political problems. She wrote Introductory Notes on Lying-in Institutions, published in 1871. Other interests included workhouse and district nursing, and health in India. In 1883, she was the first recipient of the Royal Red Cross, the first military medal designed for women.

Florence Nightingale died on 13 August 1910. In her final decade, she was awarded the title of Lady of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1904, and the Order of Merit (the first woman to receive this award) in 1907.

Further reading: Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend (London, Viking, 2008).