The story of her life reveals a complex and private person, with a shrewd and analytical mind. Although her dedication during the Crimean War earned her a worldwide reputation, she only saw this as an opportunity for further work. Rejecting convention to follow what she believed was her calling, she devoted the rest of her life to reforming health care not just in the British army, but in all sections of society. Her social reforms include advocating better hunger relief in India, helping to abolish prostitution laws that were unfair to women and expanding the female participation in the workforce. Against a backdrop of family disapproval and recurring ill health, Florence wrote over 200 books, pamphlets and articles and advised on and oversaw the development of the nursing profession. Today her legacy can be found in nursing standards and hospital design principles and she remains an inspiration to healthcare professionals around the world and one of Britain’s greatest and most famous Victorians.
Here are eight things you (probably) didn’t already know about Florence Nightingale:
Florence was born in Italy on 12 May 1820, and was named after the city of her birth. She was the second daughter of wealthy English parents William and Frances Nightingale, who had been honeymooning abroad since their marriage in 1818. Their eldest child, Parthenope, also named after her birthplace in Naples, had been born a year earlier.
William, Florence’s father’s surname was originally Shore. He inherited his fortune from his mother’s uncle Peter Nightingale, and with it changed his name. Uncle Peter, nicknamed ‘Mad Peter’, was considered an eccentric and known as a wild gambler and heavy drinker.
Florence’s early letters – which often included lists and tables of information, meticulously catalogued flower specimens, transcriptions of poems, shell and coin collections – demonstrate that she had a natural skill for classifying, analysing and documenting data. It was a skill she would go on to develop and use further in her career. She was able to look at data, draw conclusions and create a picture in her mind of the results. She discovered that accurate statistics were the key to understanding how and why things happened. Working with Dr William Farr, a pioneering statistician, she created statistical diagrams to illustrate her findings in a clear and accessible way, calling them ‘coxcombes’ (the first pie charts). In 1860 she was elected the first woman Fellow of the Statistical Society.
Florence wrote about the lives of women of her class, which evolved into her novel Cassandra. In it, she explored the oppression of the educated and privileged women of Britain, who, if allowed to use their intellect and talents, could contribute so much to life. Instead, they were confined to petty, boring duties within their families. Marriage was the only escape – but that brought it’s own confines. Years later the work was rediscovered and it has become an important feminist text.
While in Athens in 1850, Florence saw some boys playing with a ball of fluff, which turned out to be a baby owl. She rescued the owlet, which she named Athena, and hand-reared her, carrying her around in her pocket. After Florence left for the Crimea, the poor creature was neglected and died. The bird was later stuffed.
Once Florence decided what her calling in life was to be, she set out to secure an independent life for herself. Marriage was out of the question. She had several marriage proposals but refused them all, including her cousin Henry Nicholson, a young suitor called Marmaduke Wyville and Sir Henry Verney, who later married Florence’s sister, Parthemope. The man she came closest to accepting was the philanthropist and poet Richard Monckton Milnes, whom she met in 1842. She knew it was a match her mother would approve of and she thought he would be sympathetic to her interests. However, she eventually turned him down.
During the war the public at home began sending items to the Crimea to help the soldiers. People sent all sorts of things, sometimes useful and valuable, but some – although well intended – were useless. Florence listed and distributed all the free gifts that were sent and sometimes despaired of others that she had to store. When Queen Victoria offered to send the troops eau de cologne Florence responded that ‘a little gin would more popular’.
The first image of Florence as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ was published in the Illustrated London News on 24 February 1855. It launched her to an iconic status, one which still remains today. The legend of ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ gripped the world and her fame impacted dramatically on her family. Parthenope became her manager at home, collecting cuttings of her sister, and circulating information and reports to family, friends and acquaintances. Knowing that Florence would demand her privacy to be respected, Parthenope refused to consent to the release of photographs and pictures of her. Only two portraits, which had been drawn from life, were published with the family’s authorisation, but they were expensive and not intended for the mass market. This meant demand for portraits of Florence became insatiable and had to be created from the imagination. Many depictions of her were romantic and idealised, and looked nothing like her. She appeared on inexpensive products like paper bags, and a series of affordable Staffordshire figurines was created in 1855.