A Fresh Look at Florence Nightingale

Finding new respect for iconic nurse

Her name is synonymous with nursing, yet many in the profession today are unfamiliar with the legacy of Florence Nightingale. An article on nytimes.com by physician Victoria Sweet reminds us of Nightingale’s groundbreaking achievements and the lasting impact she has had on the healthcare profession.

When Sweet studied at medical school, she recalls how she dismissed Nightingale as an unsuitable female role model. Later, when she was practicing at an old-fashioned hospital in San Francisco, she heard the comfortable open wards called “Nightingale wards,” and became curious.

Thus began a period of discovery that gave the author a deep appreciation for the woman dubbed the “Lady with the Lamp” for her tireless nightly rounds giving care to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War.

“So much of what she fought for we take for granted today — our beautiful hospitals, the honored nursing profession, data-driven research,” notes Sweet.

Nightingale came from a privileged background yet had no interest in the life expected of a young woman in her social position. She turned down every suitor and, in defiance of her parents’ objections, took every opportunity to train as a nurse, which she felt was her true calling. After many years of working and learning the profession, she eventually took charge of a hospital in London.

When the Crimean War broke out, the British Secretary of War asked her to gather a team of nurses and go to the base hospital in Constantinople, where ill and injured British soldiers languished in filthy conditions — more dying from infection than from their wounds.

Nightingale’s work in improving the conditions at the hospital were credited with reducing the hospital’s death rate by two-thirds. She also introduced the concept of an “invalid’s kitchen” that prepared food for patients with special dietary requirements, and added a laundry, a classroom, and a library.

When she returned from Crimea, Nightingale wrote an 830-page report that sparked a revolution in healthcare. She also changed the public perception of nursing: once frowned upon by the upper classes, nursing became viewed as an honorable profession.

Sweet surmises that Nightingale would have approved the Affordable Care Act, though not the power it gives economists and lawyers over the roles of doctors and nurses.

“I imagine she would have seen the health care law as a work in progress, and what we have still to learn from her, even so long after her death, is her willingness to fight and her determination to get it right,” writes Sweet. “She didn’t accept being told in her own life, and she wouldn’t have wanted us to accept it in ours.


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