Florence Nightingale: Celebrating the 200th birthday of a revolutionary nurse

Updated: May 13, 2020

Two hundred years ago, Florence Nightingale, a British social reformer, statistician, and the founder of modern nursing was born and her legacy has never been more significant than it is today, as health workers across the globe continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday marks both International Nurses’ Day and 200 years since Nightingale’s birth in Florence, Italy, on 12 May 1820.

Born into a wealthy family, Florence overcame the narrow opportunities offered to girls her age. In 1851, despite the disapproval of her family, she completed her nursing programme in Germany.

Nightingale came to prominence while serving as a manager and trainer of nurses during the Crimean War, in which she organised care for wounded soldiers. She became an icon of Victorian culture and gave the nursing profession a glowing reputation.

In 1860, Nightingale laid the foundation of professional nursing with the establishment of her nursing school at St Thomas' Hospital in London. It was the first secular nursing school in the world, and is now part of King's College London.

Nightingale was a prodigious and versatile writer. In her lifetime, much of her published work was concerned with spreading medical knowledge.

Health leaders continue to use the concept of evidence-based healthcare – a theory Nightingale pioneered and advocated for and which is currently being used by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to track and trace Covid-19 patients.

Her passion for data saw her become the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. Her invention of the coxcombe, an early version of a pie chart, used to show Queen Victoria and her government of the connection between cleanliness and the mortality rate of British soldiers, is being used today to combat the current epidemic.

Arrival at Scutari

In October 1854, Florence and her 'troop' of nurses left London for Scutari, crossing the Channel and travelling through France to Marseilles.From there they sailed to Constantinople (now Istanbul), arriving on 3 November.

At Scutari, near Constantinople, the conditions were terrible. The dirty and vermin-ridden hospital lacked even basic equipment and provisions. The medical staff were swamped by the large number of soldiers being shipped across the Black Sea from the war in the Crimea.

Despite squalid conditions, the male army doctors didn't want the help of Florence and her nurses. Intially, they saw her opinions as an attack on their profession. However, after more casualties arrived from the Battle of Inkerman in November 1854, the staff were soon fully stretched and accepted the nurses' aid.

Florence and her nurses improved the medical and sanitary arrangements, set up food kitchens, washed linen and clothes, wrote home on behalf of the soldiers, and introduced reading rooms.

The Lady with the Lamp

Florence gained the nickname 'the Lady with the Lamp' during her work at Scutari. 'The Times' reported that at night she would walk among the beds, checking the wounded men holding a light in her hand. The image of 'the Lady with the Lamp' captured the public's imagination and Florence soon became a celebrity.

Florence was showered with awards and decorations in recognition of her work. She became a national icon.

Queen Victoria herself awarded Florence a jewelled brooch in 1855, designed by her husband, Prince Albert. It was dedicated: 'To Miss Florence Nightingale, as a mark of esteem and gratitude for her devotion towards the Queen's brave soldiers.’

Further career highlights

In the Crimea on 29 November 1855, the Nightingale Fund was established for the training of nurses during a public meeting to recognise her work in the war. There was an outpouring of generous donations.

Sidney Herbert served as honorary secretary of the fund and the Duke of Cambridge (Prince George) was chairman. Nightingale was considered a pioneer in the concept of medical tourism as well, based on her 1856 letters describing spas in the Ottoman Empire. She detailed the health conditions, physical descriptions, dietary information, and other vital details of patients whom she directed there. The treatment there was significantly less expensive than in Switzerland.

Nightingale wrote Notes on Nursing (1859). The book served as the cornerstone of the curriculum at the Nightingale School and other nursing schools, though it was written specifically for the education of those nursing at home. Nightingale wrote, "Every day sanitary knowledge, or the knowledge of nursing.

Graceful and charismatic

As a young woman, Nightingale was described as attractive, slender and graceful. While her demeanour was often severe, she was said to be very charming and to possess a radiant smile. Her most persistent suitor was the politician and poet Richard Monckton Milnes, but after a nine-year courtship she rejected him, convinced that marriage would interfere with her ability to follow her calling to nursing.


Nightingale's significant highlights included her role in founding the modern nursing profession.She set an example of compassion, commitment to patient care and diligent and thoughtful hospital administration.

The first official nurses' training programme, her Nightingale School for Nurses, opened in 1860 and is now called the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery at King's College London.

Four hospitals in Istanbul are named after Nightingale: Florence Nightingale Hospital in Şişli (the biggest private hospital in Turkey), Metropolitan Florence Nightingale Hospital in Gayrettepe, European Florence Nightingale Hospital in Mecidiyeköy, and Kızıltoprak Florence Nightingale Hospital in Kadiköy, all belonging to the Turkish Cardiology Foundation.

Recently makeshift hospitals that were set up in England to combat coronavirus were named after Nightingale.

England's chief nursing officer, Ruth May, said it was "absolutely fitting" that the hospitals were named after her. Ms May said that Florence was an "iconic nursing leader of her time" and a "pioneer for infection control".