Florence Nightingale was born in 1820, in Florence, Italy, to a rich, upper-class, well-connected British family. She was named after the city of her birth, just as her older sister, Frances Parthenope, was named for the Greek settlement Parthenopolis, now a part of the city of Naples. Her father, William Edward Nightingale, was a noted English Unitarian, born under the surname of Shore. Under the terms of the will of an uncle, he inherited an estate, and assumed the name and arms of Nightingale. And later, he was appointed Sheriff of Hampshire. His wife and Florence’s mother, Frances, was the daughter of an abolitionist, Whig member of Parliament. Florence’s growing up was split between Italy and England.
At the age of 17, Nightingale was inspired by what she believed was a call from God, and after a few years of discernment, announced her intention to enter nursing. In turn, she faced intense disapproval from her mother and sister, because the expected roles for a woman of her status were wife and mother. In spite of her family’s opposition, and the restrictive codes of upper-class society, she worked hard to educate herself in the art and science of nursing. She was so serious about her studies that she rejected advances of a suitor, convinced that marriage would interfere with her call.
At the age of 27, again in Italy, in Rome, she met Sidney and Elizabeth Herbert. Sidney Herbert had been the British Secretary at War, and would return to the office during the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856. They all became close friends, and the Herberts were instrumental in facilitating Nightingale’s nursing work in the Crimea. And, Nightingale became a key adviser to Herbert in his political career.
Through her life, she was a serious scholar. With the assistance of other English nobility, she was able to travel to far-flung Greece and Egypt, where she engaged her passion for writing. While in Egypt, at Thebes, she wrote of being called by God to “do good for him alone without reputation.” Among her travels, she also spent time in the Lutheran religious community at Kaiserswerth-am-Rhein in Germany, where she observed Pastor Theodor Fliedner and deaconesses working for the sick and deprived. She regarded this experience as a turning point in her life, and anonymously published her first work, The Institution of Kaiserswerth on the Rhine, for the Practical Training of Deaconesses, etc. There, she also received some months of medical training, which formed the basis for her later methods of care.
In 1853, at the age of 33, she returned to London, where for a year she took the post of superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen. By this time, her family had come to accept what they felt was an unconventional life path. In turn, her father endowed her with a generous annual income (approximately $65k in our modern economy), which allowed her to live comfortably and pursue the career she had constructed for herself.
As the Crimean War intensified, reports came back to England about the horrific conditions suffered by the wounded. With a staff of 38 women volunteer nurses she had trained, and with Sidney Herbert’s authorization, she and her colleagues were sent to the Ottoman Empire, to the main British camp of Selimiye Barracks in modern-day Istanbul. They found wounded soldiers badly cared for by overworked medical staff, official indifference, medications in short supply, neglected hygiene, and mass infections that were often fatal. They also lacked equipment to properly prepare food for patients.
Nightingale sent a plea to The Times, for the British government to step in, resulting in the construction of a hospital that was built in England, shipped in pieces, and reassembled on-site. Sadly, this led into a great controversy. While it was initially proclaimed that Nightingale was instrumental in greatly reducing death rates, death rates actually rose due to overcrowding, defective sewers, and a lack of ventilation at the hospital. A Sanitary Commission was sent by the British government, and through their work to improve hospital sanitation, death rates were finally sharply reduced. Yet, Nightingale insisted that poor nutrition and supplies, and overworking of soldiers was the predominant factor in death rates, rather than poor sanitation. Only years later, after returning to Britian and discovering evidence to the contrary, were her eyes opened, and in turn she focused on the importance of sanitary living conditions.
Regarding nursing, she went on to write textbooks, founded a school of nursing that continues today as the nursing school of King’s College London, and campaign for hospital conditions in Britian. Her contributions are utterly lasting and too numerous to reasonably count. Even in times of her own great illnesses, her tireless work carried on. Finally in 1910, at the age of 90, she died peacefully in her sleep. The offer of burial in Westminster Abbey was declined by her relatives, and she is buried in the graveyard at St. Margaret Church in Hampshire.
Among her many talents, Nightingale had special gifts for mathematics and statistics. She was a pioneer in visual presentation of information and data, and was instrumental in bringing the pie chart, invented in 1801, into widespread use through today. She is credited with developing a special form of the pie chart, known as the polar area diagram, or sometimes, the Nightingale rose diagram. She used the diagram to illustrate seasonal sources of patient mortality in the hospital she managed in the Crimea. Her collections of diagrams became reports that were the only way for Parliament and civil servants to really understand and act to improve the conditions she described.
She is commemorated by several churches in the Anglican Communion, and by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as a renewer of society. It is easy to understand her commemoration, considering her staggering body of work that has left a lasting effect upon the healing arts and sciences. And her experience and formation with the Lutheran deaconess community certainly ties her life to Lutheran history as well. Despite her class and stature, and despite some controversy along the way, her work for the health and dignity of all classes of people cannot be denied. She continues to serve us today as an inspiration for us to discern and follow our own callings from God, with passion and with dedication.
Knowing her story, let us pray.
Heavenly Father, You call people in every time and place, to lives of service, following paths that lead to the places we least expect. Open our eyes, ears, and hearts, to hear Your call, through the Holy Spirit You sent to us in our baptism. Grant us courage to step forward in all boldness and faith, to give ourselves to the world that You love, the people who nailed Your Son to a cross, the people who You claim as Your children. For through us, You will reveal Your glory and faithfulness to the end of the age. Amen.