The Pioneers

Florence Nightingale 1820-1910


Florence Nightingale was a woman that was to change the face of the hospital environment and patient care radically. In the mid-19th century, women were to be seen and not heard, especially when their voice was political or contradicted the established view.

 Florence Nightingale was born of wealthy parents in the Villa La Columbia, Florence Italy. She as a young lady, was determined to be a nurse, against the wishes of her parents.

 She was extremely well educated and had influential friends in high places. Palmerstone, who was the Prime Minister during the Crimean War, was a friend of the Nightingale family; his estate in Hampshire adjoined theirs. 

The Crimean war broke out in March 1854, and initially all the country was behind the government’s decision to deploy the troops to battle. This was the time that the press was becoming more and more proactive, sending reporters on deployments, the Times Newspaper sent one such reporter to the war zone. 

The reports that were sent back by Irishman William Russell the Times reporter, shocked the country as a whole, public opinion started to turn away from supporting the government, to one of horror, distress and sheer anger because of the lack of support being given to the troops, especially the wounded located at Scutari Hospital.

William Russell famously wrote in the Times in September 1854 appealing to women to volunteer to help the wounded.

"Are there no devoted women amongst us, able and willing to go forth to minister to the sick and suffering soldiers of the east in the hospitals in Scutari? Are none of the daughters of England, at this extreme hour of need, ready for such work of mercy? Must we fall far below the French in self-sacrifice and devoutness? 330


Sir Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of War, made a decision to try and improve conditions at Scutari Hospital which was near Constantinople. He was a family friend of the Nightingales and knew of Florence’s Nightingales expertise as a nurse and organiser, so he contacted her and requested that she go to the Crimea to help the sick, and wounded of the war.

She accepted without hesitation. The decision to send her was in November 1854. She was given the title "Superintendent of the female nurses". She was funded to enlist a group of 20 nurses. She proceeded to Scutari hospital, which was just outside Constantinople, now a part of Turkey.

 There was opposition to this deployment especially from the Military, as the deployment of women nurses had been tried before. These women however were untrained and were of the lower class they some were not interested in the needs of the injured or sick soldier. 

Most of them drank too much and caused more problems than they solved. Her arrival at Scutari was the day before the battle of Inkerman. The hospital facility at Scutari was overcrowded, and was classed as a 3758 bedded hospital.

It was infested with vermin and was filthy, the mortality rate was high. Deaths were due to cholera, wound sepsis, dysentery and “Crimea fever” How Florence Nightingale and her team dealt with the situation at Scutari is legendary. It was said of her that:

"Her gift was her power to dominate, which lifted her from out the ranks of those who are only 'able' to the highest reached by those who are great".330

(Florence Nightingale's nurses were off duty at 8pm and male orderlies took over for the night. Only Florence Nightingale ventured onto the wards after 8pm. The picture of the lady with the lamp is familiar to most people around the world.) 

Nightingale and her nurses brought down the mortality rate to below four per cent from its original 40 plus per cent. Miss Stanley (who some say was the real heroine of nursing) arrived later with 46 other nurses (at first this reinforcement was objected to by Nightingale).

The lessons learned from the Crimean war went on to influence the military’s medical service, which from then on Incorporated’s a nurse led service on the wards to look after post op and medical patients.

It was a fact that Miss Stanley held more respect for the care to the wounded that was given by her team, the figures on the state of the wounded will testify to that, however there was another Mary Seacole a nurse of Caribbean origin who was also of great benefit to the wounded.

Although the majority view of her role was that it was overstated, the results are what matter and Florence Nightingale had set in motion with the rest of the nurses, a system of patient care that obtained excellent results. It is a fact though that Florence Nightingale was a high class snob, and spoke down to medical officers of a lesser class.

The reason why nurses in the three services are commissioned, is a legacy of the original Florence Nightingale nurses, these nurses were all members of the gentry and it seemed appropriate are the time to commission these nurses so as they would not mix with the other ranks. This tradition has in part carried on until now where nurses can apply for a nursing commission.

Florence Nightingale went on to write papers about the sanitary state of not only the British army’s medical facilities and hospitals but also those within what we now call the NHS. She died in 1910, but her legacy lives on.



About This Site

The History of Surgery and Anaesthesia was created as a free resource to educate Students or indeed anyone wishing to understand the beginings of surgery and Anaesthesia.

Get in Touch