The Lady with the Lamp: How Florence Nightingale Blazed the Trail into Modern Nursing

Florence Nightingale nurse
Florence Nightingale nurse

National Nurses Week has been a mainstay in the health care industry’s calendar for over 50 years. It’s a much-deserved week that’s meant to celebrate and honor nurses for the hard work and lifesaving care they give to their communities all year long. The week begins on May 6 and concludes each year on May 12, the birthdate of Florence Nightingale, a reformer and educator widely regarded as the founder of modern nursing as we know it.

Throughout her decades-long career, Florence Nightingale worked to upgrade the standards of care for patients as well as the record-keeping and sanitation practices in hospitals. Her successful efforts significantly lowered the number of hospital deaths from communicable diseases and preventable infections that were prevalent in Victorian-era hospitals.

Florence Nightingale’s legacy is still being felt today. However, it’s no exaggeration to suppose that Florence Nightingale’s contributions to nursing have saved millions of lives by influencing the way nurses are educated and the way they administer care.

Who was Florence Nightingale? 

Florence Nightingale was an influential nurse who lived in Great Britain during the Victorian Era. She is considered the founder of modern nursing. 

Florence Nightingale was a British woman born in Florence, Italy, to wealthy parents who were on an extended European honeymoon at the time of her birth. The second of two daughters, Nightingale was well-educated, studying mathematics and several languages.

From an early age, she rejected the idea of marrying someone similarly wealthy and settling down to raise a family, stating instead that she had a divine calling to pursue the field of nursing. Nightingale even turned down a marriage proposal from a suitable partner, saying that she had a moral imperative to say no. Instead, Nightingale turned her interest to the sickly and the poor who were living in communities adjacent to her parents’ two estates.

Nightingale’s parents resisted the idea of her studying to be a nurse, as the vocation was not highly esteemed among their social circles. Women of Nightingale’s class were not expected to work at all, let alone work amongst people who were sick or injured. Florence Nightingale was unrelenting in her desire to work as a nurse, and ultimately, her father allowed her to study for three months in Germany around the time she turned 30 years old.

Because of her upbringing, Nightingale was uniquely positioned among her nursing peers. She’d been privately tutored and was well-equipped to analyze statistics and keep meticulous records. It required a strong will to even be permitted by her family to study nursing, and that strong will would serve her well as she worked to implement health care reforms throughout her lifetime.

What is Florence Nightingale most famous for?  

Florence Nightingale is known as “The Lady with the Lamp,” a nickname she earned from caring for injured British soldiers late into the night.

After concluding her initial training, Nightingale returned to Britain and worked at a hospital for women. She rose quickly through the ranks and became the manager and superintendent at that hospital. Word of her administrative gifts and dedication to nursing spread quickly, and Nightingale was asked to assemble a team of nurses to care for wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War.

What happened next is, perhaps, what Florence Nightingale became most famous for, and what set the stage for her long-term impact on nursing. When she arrived in Scutari, the British base hospital in Constantinople, the soldiers were in dire straits. The hospital’s conditions were unsanitary. Basic supplies were scant, and many men were dying from preventable infections they contracted in the hospital.

Nightingale got to work, creating a series of mandates of care. She cleaned up the hospital, in the literal sense of the word, insisting on handwashing and laundry protocols. She also cared for the patients herself, traveling through the wards through the night to check on patients. This led to her well-known nickname, the “Lady with the Lamp.” Estimates vary, but most sources agree that Nightingale’s work at the war hospitals brought down the mortality rate by at least two-thirds.

What are Florence Nightingale’s notable achievements?  

Florence Nightingale upgraded the sanitation standards at hospitals, introduced statistical record-keeping into hospital administration, and elevated the vocation of nursing to a more respected profession.

When Nightingale arrived home from the war, she was hailed as a hero. But Nightingale was not at all finished working for change. She leveraged her reputation as a hospital administrator, as well as the statistics she had collected, to advocate for a system-wide overhaul of the British hospital system. She also used money from a sizable award given to her by the British monarchy to establish the Nightingale Training Hospital at St. Thomas’ Hospital, a teaching center to educate nurses.

In her later years, Nightingale went on to publish widely. Her most well-known publication was called “Notes on Nursing,” which is still read and studied by nurses today. Though she believed that hospitals should be places of comfort and recovery, she also believed that health care could start in the home with better sanitation practices and basic health education for patients.

It’s impossible to fully sum up Florence Nightingale’s contributions to nursing, but some notable achievements in her legacy include:

  • Establishing standards for hospital care to reduce infection and spread of disease
  • Founding multiple educational hubs to train health care workers
  • Advocating for patient health education as a foundation for a healthier population
  • Setting a high standard for record-keeping and statistics to track health care outcomes and measure success
  • Changing the way the public perceived the nursing profession, elevating the vocation to a position of honor and public trust

How does Florence Nightingale’s legacy tie into modern nursing today?

Florence Nightingale was widely published, and several of her works are still used by nursing students in their studies. A woman of action, her philosophies of patient education and home health care are still foundational to how nurses practice.

Even now, every nurse’s education starts with principles that were made popular by Florence Nightingale. Nurse educators continue to look to her as an example of a nurse whose care, empathy, and dedication are unparalleled. Rockhurst University's nursing program leaders say they consider the life of Florence Nightingale as inspiration in their quest to light the way forward for a new generation of nurses. 

Doug Dunham, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Rockhurst University, says that Nightingale’s legacy reminds nursing students to be people of action. “What we are expecting of our students is to reflect on how their experience can impact others, and then go out and act,” he says, adding that it’s not good enough to simply reflect; you must go out and do something as a result. “It’s kind of like a scientific method cycle — you have a [learning] experience, you reflect on what happened, and then you go out and you make a difference.”

Dr. Barbara Ludwig, Director of Graduate Nursing Programs and an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Saint Luke’s™ College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Rockhurst, says that nursing students who attend the nursing program will leave with the skills, knowledge, and integrity that echo the spirit of Florence Nightingale. “They’re going to be the most optimal nurse practitioners and [health care] leaders who can impact the community around them, their patients, and population health around the world,” she says.

Learn more about Rockhurst University’s online nursing programs.

Following in the tradition of Florence Nightingale, Rockhurst University believes in leading with empathy, innovation, and dedication in health care. The University offers online nursing programs for a wide range of learners, from an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) to a Master’s in Science in Nursing or Nursing Leadership (MSN), as well as Post-Master’s degrees. 

Learn more about Rockhurst University’s online nursing programs today.

About Rockhurst University's Online Programs

In the heart of Kansas City since 1910, Rockhurst University is dedicated to learning, leadership and service in the Jesuit tradition, and today is the #1 Regional University in Kansas City (2021 U.S. News and World Report).

Rockhurst University’s online programs are delivered by the highly reputable Saint Luke’s ™ College of Nursing and Health Sciences and the School of Education. As an educational leader serving exceptional students in the field of health care and education, we are committed to preparing the workforce of tomorrow with our unique programs designed to prepare graduates to meet the needs of diverse populations and work in various organizations.

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