The Lady with the Lamp


She is a ‘ministering angel’ without any exaggeration in these hospitals, and as her slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every poor fellow’s face softens with gratitude at the sight of her. When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.

The Times

On this day in 1820, a baby was born and named after the city of her birth: Florence Nightingale. Her parents were wealthy and distinctly upper class; Florence was something of a rebel and free-thinker, though she had strong religious convictions.

She became famous as a social reformer, fighting to abolish harsh anti-prostitution laws; she developed novel methods for the graphical demonstration of statistics; she strove for improved health care, hygiene and sanitation, and for hunger reduction in India. But it is as the Lady with the Lamp, visiting the sick and injured soldiers during the Crimean War for which she is most remembered today.

She developed the first proper school of nursing which opened in 1860 and which continues at King’s College, turning the profession from the caricature depicted in Dickens’ Sarah Gamp into a modern, respectable occupation for women. Today is appropriately celebrated as International Nurses Day.

Later in life she was bedridden for long periods; it’s now thought that she suffered from ‘Crimean Fever’, the undulant fever of Brucellosis which can be contracted from unpasteurised milk.

If you’ve ever been a patient or a visitor to the old Royal Victoria Hospital, and walked along the corridor from Wards 1 to 20, you witnessed a classical ‘Nightingale Ward’ design. The individual wards were longish rooms, with 10 or so beds arranged along each side; they were paired, the odd numbers for women, the even numbers for men. The nurses’ station, from where all the patients could be observed, was usually at the corridor end of the ward. The clinical room, just off the corridor, was originally an operating theatre. Florence’s inspiration for this design was the military dormitory.

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  • Zeno

    I think turning Nursing into a profession had changed it for the worse. I’m not talking about Florence Nightingale, but the more recent changes. In my opinion it is attracting career people instead of caring people. I’ve had some awful experiences with Nurses caring for elderly relatives. One of my relatives suffered dehydration while in hospital. The poor mans food and drink was left out of his reach and he wasn’t even in a fit state to feed himself. On another occasion I had to go get a Nurse for a Patient who was obviously needed assistance while 7 Nurses sat at reception gossiping. I could give more examples, but my overall impression was they just don’t care like they used to.

  • Korhomme

    You’re talking about Nursing 2000, Zeno. Before Florence, nurses were either nuns or, like Sarah Gamp, drunkards. Florence’s achievement was to make nursing a suitable profession for (middle class) young women; however, much of the nun’s ethos remained. Nurses were housed on-site, overworked and treated like skivvies, and almost expected to devote their entire lives to the profession. There was an eventual reaction to this; but the Nursing 2000 ideas went further. The impression is that nurses weren’t there to do bed baths, wipe bums, or tp clean the beds, but to manage patients’ care, with the menial jobs being done by others. And, yes, they surrounded themselves with reams and reams and reams of paperwork. So, it appears that basic care of patients seems to have fallen through the gap between managing care and the everyday needs of patients.

  • Reader

    Korhomme: The impression is that nurses weren’t there to do bed baths, wipe bums, or tp clean the beds, but to manage patients’ care, with the menial jobs being done by others.
    Then maybe the people who do the physical job ought to be called nurses, with the current nurses called “nursing administrators” or “medical assistants” instead.

  • eireanne

    since the nursing diploma became a nursing degree in the 1990s – things have changed, I have heard recently retired nurses voice the same complaints as Zeno above. Like all medical professions nursing has progressed and the people who do the physical jobs of washing, feeding, moving patients and so on are now, more often than not, nursing orderlies – Graduate nurses do other things

  • Korhomme

    Reader, I think that eireanne is correct. But it’s also a societal change in the nature of work. Back in the day, very few girls went to Uni, and then nursing or teaching were seen as respectable jobs. Nowadays, nursing is a degree course, with (perhaps) slightly different people applying. We are now seeing, not just in nursing, but more generally elsewhere, a sort of ‘wasp-waist’ pattern of employment. A very large base of those who do ‘menial’ jobs, often for minimum wage pay, a ‘squeezed middle’ and a large top, where graduates and the ambitious gather. This is clearly reflected in wealth and income distributions today; with an increase in inequality between the broad base of the relatively and actually poor, and the topmost 10%.

  • Zeno

    I’m not sure it has progressed. My Mother was a Nurse. She didn’t do it because it was a good career. She did it because she cared for people. The caring element seems to have vanished. That can’t be progress surely?