Florence Nightingale was a Victorian woman who is perhaps most remembered for her contributions to the field of nursing. In addition to being a pioneer in the nursing field, this remarkable woman also contributed to the gains of the women's rights movement, and she was an accomplished author and mathematician. Many people who are familiar with her in the context of nursing are surprised to learn that she was a very talented statistician.
Nightingale was born in 1820 to upper-class parents. She was named for Florence, Italy, the city in which she was born; her sister Parthenope was also named for a Mediterranean settlement. Florence Nightingale had an extremely fortunate birth, because in addition to being well-heeled, her parents were also the descendants of compassionate reformers, including members of the Abolition movement. Nightingale's parents encouraged her to seek an education, with her father acting as her tutor before turning her over to James Joseph Sylvester, a noted mathematician of the time.
In 1837, Florence Nightingale experienced what she felt was a call from God, and by 1845, she had become determined to go into nursing. Her parents were dismayed, and attempted to dissuade her from a career in nursing, but she overrode them, feeling that the call was too strong to ignore. By 1853, she was a nursing superintendent in a private hospital in London.
At the outbreak of the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale formed a team of nurses and insisted on traveling to the front to work in field hospitals. For the 1800s, this sort of thing was unheard of, and military officials agreed only reluctantly. Florence Nightingale turned out to be a tireless nurse on the front, earning the nickname “The Lady with the Lamp” in reference to her tendency to roam the wards after dark with a lamp to check on her patients. She also agitated for significant reforms to improve conditions in field hospitals, and is often credited with being one of the first people to substantially improve medical care for injured soldiers.
On her return to London, Florence Nightingale continued her career as a nurse, reformer, and writer, lobbying especially hard for the impoverished citizens of London. She initiated a number of public health campaigns, founded a nursing school which still exists today, and promoted better sanitation in British hospitals, among many other things. She was honored for her efforts in 1883 by Queen Victoria with the Order of the Red Cross, and again in 1907 by King Edward VII with the Order of Merit.
The career of Florence Nightingale would have been notable in any era, but it is especially remarkable when one considers the fact that the Victorian Era was a difficult time for professional women, and Nightingale faced considerable opposition from the medical community because of her gender. She also had to contend with chronic illness, being bedridden in the later years of her life, and ultimately dying at age 90 in her sleep.