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Florence Nightingale: Nursing a Profession

One hundred and fifty years ago, Florence Nightingale opened a school that would revolutionize nursing.

SUMMER 2010
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nightingale figurine

Science Museum/SSPL

Perhaps in no one single thing is so little common sense shown, in all ranks, as in nursing,” Florence Nightingale wrote in 1859 in Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not. In her home country, England, alcoholism was rampant among nurses; she even recalled one surgeon whose evening rounds included bringing intoxicated nurses into the infirmary on stretchers. What’s more, nurses tended to lack formal training, and programs that did exist were often as concerned with saving patients’ souls as they were with more practical functions. Nightingale complained that there was “but little difference between the religious scruple of the ‘sister’ who neglects her patients for her rule and the irreligious scruple of the nurse who neglects her patients for her drink.”

She sought to remedy this situation the same year Notes on Nursing was published, when she established the first secular nursing school, the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. The program accepted students of all faiths, emphasized theory and clinical practice, and approached nurses’ education as an academic endeavor rather than an apprenticeship. One hundred and fifty years after the school opened, the institution still exists, now as the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing & Midwifery at King’s College London.

Nightingale founded the school with more than £44,000 collected by a public that revered her for her heroic service during the Crimean War, from 1854 to 1856. as superintendent of nurses and the first woman to hold an official position in the British army, she championed better conditions for the military and became a pioneer in outcomes research, observing that soldier deaths from preventable contagious diseases often outnumbered those from battle injuries. Nightingale was later immortalized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as the “lady with a lamp.”

Though Nightingale, a talented statistician and prolific writer, retreated from public life after the war, she continued working and kept careful tabs on her school. By 1880, Nightingale nurses were esteemed in their profession; some went on to start training programs around the world.

Nightingale hoped to contribute to medicine even after her death, requesting that her body be donated to science. Although that didn’t happen after she passed away 100 years ago at the age of 90, her legacy paved the way for modern nurses.

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