15 Heroic Facts About Florence Nightingale
Venerated as the "founder of modern nursing," Florence Nightingale—who was born in Florence, Italy on May 12, 1820—left a revolutionary mark on sanitation, healthcare, and even statistics. Today, on the anniversary of her birth, is the perfect time to celebrate her extraordinary life—one that saved countless others.
1. Florence Nightingale was fluent in English, French, German, and Italian.
Nightingale also had a decent grasp of both Latin and classical Greek. Her father, a wealthy Cambridge grad, personally oversaw young Florence’s education. Through him, she learned the basics of everything from mathematics to philosophy to Shakespearean literature.
2. She chose to pursue nursing at a young age, despite her parents' objections.
Nursing didn't garner much respect back in 1837. Generally, it was associated with low social status and rampant alcoholism. Lousy wages also forced many women who entered the field to make ends meet by engaging in a bit of prostitution on the side. So, when 16-year-old Nightingale announced that she felt "called" to become a nurse, her parents weren’t thrilled. But their determined daughter’s mind was made up and, in 1850, she finally started learning the craft. Three years later, Nightingale became the superintendent of a London-based women’s hospital.
3. Nightingale refused to get married.
She turned down multiple proposals, including one made by a cousin named Henry Nicholson.
4. Nightingale had 38 nurses working under her during the Crimean War.
This 1850s conflict, in which Britain and France clashed with Russia over the Slavic empire’s invasion of Turkish territory, turned Nightingale into a Victorian celebrity.
Nightingale was friends with UK war secretary Sidney Herbert, and he gave her permission to round up 38 volunteers and treat the wounded at a field hospital in Scutari. Cleanliness wasn’t the facility’s strong suit: Feces littered the floors, rats scampered through the hallways, and clean linens were a rare commodity; 42.7 percent of admitted patients died in February 1855. Clearly, Nightingale deduced, there was a link between poor sanitation and that high mortality rate. She soon implemented strict hygiene rules that whittled the number down to 2 percent by June.
5. Nightingale's diligence inspired a glowing nickname.
"She is a ‘ministering angel’ without any exaggeration in these hospitals," the London Times wrote of Nightingale in 1855. As their article added, she could often be "observed alone," checking up on the wounded "with a little lamp in her hand." Just like that, Nightingale won international acclaim as the benevolent "Lady with the Lamp."
6. She frequently wrote letters home on behalf of dying or dead soldiers.
Nightingale sometimes took it upon herself to be the bearer of bad news, as she did in this snippet from a delicately-worded message sent in 1856: "It is with very sincere sorrow that I am obliged to confirm the fears of the father of the Late Howell Evans about his poor son … I have never in my life had so painful & unsatisfactory a letter to write."
7. She helped popularize the pie chart.
The first true pie chart was drawn in 1801, 19 years before Nightingale was born. Still, historians recognize the nurse as an early adopter and promoter of the statistical tool. Her 1858 report, "Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army," includes the graph pictured above. Every slice represents a given month’s casualties, with the colors red, blue, and black designating death via "wounds," "preventable disease," and "other causes," respectively.
8. Queen Victoria was a big fan.
Before things wrapped up in Crimea, Her Majesty rewarded Nightingale’s service by sending her a special brooch as a thank you. "It will be a very great satisfaction to me," the Queen declared, "when you return at last to these shores, to make the acquaintance of one who has set so bright an example to our sex." She got her wish when the pair met face-to-face for the first time in 1856; they remained in contact for decades thereafter.
9. Nightingale worked with the British government to enact far-reaching sanitation laws.
The Lady with the Lamp used her influence to bring about significant changes at home. Between 1871 and 1875—long after the war was over—she successfully pushed for legislation that would force extant buildings into connecting with main drainage. The results speak for themselves: By 1935, Britain’s national life expectancy had increased by 20 years.
10. Her 1859 book, Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not, became one of the profession's most important texts.
Pointers like "Every nurse ought to be careful to wash her hands very frequently during the day" and "every nurse should be … capable of being a 'confidential' nurse" are just as invaluable today as they were 160 years ago.
11. During the American Civil War, both sides benefited from Nightingale's advice.
Both the Union and the Confederacy were obsessed with proper ventilation of their hospitals, which were specially built in accordance with her theories. Meanwhile, she contacted D.C.-based Union leaders directly with helpful soldier mortality statistics.
12. She educated "America's first trained nurse."
Linda Richards (1841-1930) owns this distinction, which she acquired by attending London’s Nightingale School of Nursing (founded in 1860 at St. Thomas’ Hospital). Nightingale herself helped personally train Richards, whose focus later shifted toward psychiatry and working with mental health professionals.
13. She became the first woman to be inducted into the Order of Merit.
Established in 1902, this high British honor was created by King Edward VII to recognize individuals who “have rendered exceptionally meritorious services ... towards the advancement of the Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science.” Nightingale earn the accolade in 1907; no other woman would be awarded the honor again until biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin followed suit in 1965.
14. Her birthday is celebrated around the world as "International Nurses Day."
The annual tradition of recognizing nurses for their hard work and contributions on May 12 has been going strong since 1974.
15. YOU CAN HEAR NIGHTINGALE'S VOICE ON YOUTUBE.
On July 30, 1890, Nightingale met with one of Thomas Edison’s British representatives and created this brief recording. The proceeds went to assist Crimean War veterans, specifically those who’d fought in the disastrous Battle of Balaclava. Her captured remarks are as follows:
"When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale."
This article has been updated for 2019.