A Brief Biography of Florence Nightingale

By Tim Lambert

Her Early Life

Florence Nightingale was born in the city of Florence, Italy on 12 May 1820. She was the second daughter of wealthy parents (her elder sister was called Parthenope). When she was young Florence was very interested in mathematics. She was also a devout Christian and when she was 17 she felt God was calling her to serve him. At first, Florence was not sure how God wanted her to serve but by 1844 she was convinced she was to nurse the sick.

Her parents, William and Frances disapproved because at that time nursing was not a respectable job. Her family tried to talk Florence out of it but she was determined. A man named Richard Monckton Miles tried to persuade Florence to marry him but she refused even though she adored him. Florence Nightingale was determined to sacrifice herself.

Nevertheless, it was several years before she got any nursing experience. In 1851 she went to Kaiserwerth in Germany to learn. Then in 1853, she was given her first post, reorganizing a small hospital in Harvey Street, London, The Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances.

Florence In The Crimean War

As a result of her work Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of War invited her to go on a mission to soldiers wounded fighting the Russians. (At that time Britain, France, and Turkey were fighting Russia. Nightingale sailed with 38 nurses to Turkey on 21 October 1854.

They arrived at Scutari Hospital in November. However, an alarming number of soldiers in Scutari Hospital died of disease while under Nightingale’s care. (The death rate in Scutari was higher than in other, similar hospitals). So in 1855, the British government sent a sanitary commission to investigate. They found the hospital at Scutari was built over a blocked sewer. The commissioners flushed the sewer and improved ventilation in the hospital. As a result, the number of deaths in the hospital dropped dramatically.

Even though the death rate in her hospital was very high and it only fell when the sanitary commission did its work Florence became a heroine to the public.

Nightingale returned to Britain in 1856. She was commissioned to investigate the living conditions of British soldiers in peacetime. In 1858 she published her findings as Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. This work contained many statistical analyses.

Though she is usually remembered as a nurse Florence was a talented statistician. In 1858 she became the first woman member of the Royal Statistical Society. In 1874 she became an honorary member of the American Statistical Society. Florence did NOT invent the pie chart (it was invented by William Playfair in 1801). For her work, Nightingale used polar area diagrams (invented by a Frenchman named Andre-Michel Guerry in 1829).

In 1860 Florence Nightingale opened the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St Thomas Hospital. She greatly raised the standards of nursing. Every probationer who entered the school was interviewed by Florence and supervised by her. In old age, Florence suffered from ill health and she went blind. By the mid-1890s Florence was an invalid. However, she was awarded the Order of Merit in 1907.

Florence Nightingale died on 13 August 1910.

Last revised 2024