Born at Florence while her parents were travelling in Italy in 1820, Florence Nightingale was named after the city of her birth. She was raised mostly at Lea Hurst in Derbyshire. Brought up in the Unitarian Church, she later joined the Church of England but her personal beliefs were far from orthodox and prone to change. Nevertheless she experienced God’s personal presence and sought to follow his promptings. Feeling called by God to some form of service at the age of 16, she decided that she must remain single and soon afterwards rejected a proposal of marriage.
In 1844, she came to believe that her calling was to nurse the sick and in 1849 she went to study hospitals in Europe. On 12 May 1850 she recorded in her diary, ‘Today I am thirty – the age Christ began his mission. Now no more childish things. No more love. No more marriage. Now Lord let me think only of Thy Will, what Thou willest me to do.’ Later that year she began nursing training at Alexandria in Egypt and subsequently studied at the Lutheran Deaconess Institute at Kaiserswerth in Germany. In1853 she became superintendent of the Hospital for Invalid Gentlewomen in London.
After the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, Florence used personal contacts in high places to allow her to take 38 nurses to serve at the military hospital at Scutari (Üsküdar) in Turkey and later at Balaklava in the Crimea. Through her tireless efforts to improve both nursing care and simple sanitation, the mortality rate among the sick and wounded was greatly reduced. At night, she would often patrol the wards, carrying a dim lamp, to check that all was well. The legend of ‘the Lady with the Lamp’ was born.
After the war she began the first professional nursing training in England at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. Through her efforts the stature of nursing was raised to that of a medical profession with high standards of education and important responsibilities. But under the strain of ceaseless overwork, her own health broke, and she was an invalid for the last part of her life. She received many honours and in 1907 she became the first woman to receive the Order of Merit. She died in London on 13 August 1910, aged 90, and was buried at St Margaret’s, East Wellow in Hampshire. Her tombstone bears the simple inscription, ‘F. N. 1820–1910’.
Extract from Saints on Earth: A biographical companion to Common Worship by John H Darch and Stuart K Burns