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Christian History Home > 1990 > Issue 25 > The Faith Behind the Famous: Florence Nightingale: Christian History Sampler

The Faith Behind the Famous: Florence Nightingale: Christian History Sampler
She singlehandedly revolutionized the field of nursing, a mission that began with a call to God's service at age 17.
Mary Lewis Coakley is the author of twelve books and resides in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. | posted 1/01/1990 12:00AM

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Say “Florence Nightingale,” and instantly the word nurse pairs with it. Probably she was the most extraordinary nurse in history. Kings, queens, and princes all consulted her, as did the president of the United States, who wanted her advice about military hospitals during the Civil War.

It was Florence Nightingale who revolutionized hospital methods in England—and indeed throughout the world. During the Crimean War, she served in the first field hospital ever run and tended by women. She established schools for training nurses, and she introduced procedures that have been benefiting people ever since.

Still, this is an incomplete portrait. For years Florence acted as behind-the-scenes British secretary of war, managing to considerably better conditions for men in the armed services by setting up a system of health administration that was without precedent.

Suffering, wherever it existed, challenged her. She even set up a system for extending nursing care to the poor and the criminal underworld in the slums of English cities.

One reason Florence managed to accomplish so much was because any occupation but working for improved health standards seemed to her a waste of time. And Florence had remarkable stamina. When she was young, she sometimes worked twenty-two out of twenty-four hours.

Then, too, she was gifted with a peculiar genius: She could assimilate information in prodigious quantities, retain it, marshal her facts, and use them effectively. A relative wrote that when Flo was exhausted, the sight of a column of figures was “perfectly reviving to her.” Altogether she wrote eight lengthy reports and seventeen books on medical and nursing subjects.

Early Family Life

Florence was born in 1820 while her English parents, Fanny and William, were vacationing in Florence, Italy. She was named for her birthplace, although at that time Florence was not listed among feminine names, as it has been since Miss Nightingale gave it fame. She had an older sister, Parthenope (always called Parthe), who was also named for her birthplace.

Florence’s beautiful and intelligent mother and her wealthy, dilettante father were not very compatible, nor were the two little girls. Parthe, though she all but adored her sister, at the same time was envious and selfishly possessive of her.

It was impossible to find a tutor with the intellectual prowess demanded by Mr. Nightingale. So he assumed the responsibility himself, teaching the children Latin, Greek, German, Italian, French, English grammar, philosophy, and history. A governess was trusted to teach them only music and drawing.

When Parthe was eighteen and Flo sixteen, study was somewhat curtailed. The girls were presented at court and introduced to society. Their life then included many parties and much travel on the Continent.

Flo was tall, willowy, graceful, and pretty. Two young men promptly fell in love with her and proposed marriage. She liked them both, but she wasn’t ready to marry either.

Divine Mission

Then a strange thing happened. Though she did not think herself deeply religious and never thought she became so, on February 7, 1837, when she was scarcely 17 years old, she felt that God spoke to her, calling her to future “service.” From that time on her life was changed.

At first the call disturbed her. Not knowing the nature of the “service,” she feared making herself unworthy of whatever it was by leading the frivolous life that her mother and her social set demanded of her. Now she was given to periods of preoccupation, or to what she called “dreams” of how to fulfill her mission. Meanwhile she spent all her spare time visiting the cottages on her family estate and bringing neighboring poor people food and medicine.

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