When Florence Nightingale and her nurses showed up in the British war hospitals at Scutari, on the Crimean front, conditions were worse than they had heard: they witnessed filth, infection, disorganization, and an overwhelming case load. Shiploads of desperately needed medical supplies sat in the harbor while men died because some official had not filled out the proper forms. In this environment, 42 percent of the wounded never recovered.

It took all of Nightingale's training and dedication, and then some, to turn things around.

"God spoke to me"

Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy (hence her first name) in 1820 to an English family of ample means. She traveled and attended parties with the "chosen of society" on the family estate in Derbyshire. When she was 16, she received a divine call. "On Feb. 7th, 1837," she wrote, "God spoke to me and called me into his service."

The call was as mysterious as it was audible-what service? Seven years of uncertainty followed. Over family objections, she began "cottage visiting"-taking food and medicine to poor farmers who lived on the family's lands. Then she began to think about nursing; her family was scandalized. In the early 1800s, nurses were considered unskilled laborers and were reputedly drunken and promiscuous. Proper ladies kept a fine house, gave parties, and made brilliant conversation.

In 1844 American philanthropists Samuel and Julia Ward Howe (the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") visited the Nightingale home. Florence asked them, "Do you think it would be unsuitable and unbecoming for a young Englishwoman to devote herself to works of charity in hospitals?"

Dr. Howe replied, "It would be unusual, and in England whatever is unusual is thought to be unsuitable. ...

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