Florence Nightingale – Born 12 May 1820 – International Nurses Day 2020

Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)

This is a re-post of the original article on Florence Nightingale as today in celebration of the 200th anniversary of her birth today has been declared as International Nurses Day.  For further information https://www.icn.ch/what-we-docampaigns/international-nurses-day

In this time of the Covid19 pandemic emergency hospitals in UK have been named after Florence Nightingale.  Highlighting the importance of her life work in establishing nursing as a recognised profession.

There are hospitals in Turkey named after Florence Nightingale. She is known in Turkey because of her contribution to nursing reform and the establishment of sanitary hospitals which began when she had a leading role in setting up the hospital where soldiers wounded during the Crimean war were nursed. Her hospital was established by the British Army in Selimiye Barracks[1](Selimiye Kışlası), Haydarpaşı, Istanbul. In the aftermath of this experience Florence Nightingale contributed much to the training of nurses, the establishment of sanitary hospitals and barracks.


The Anglican Church commemorates the life of Florence Nightingale on 13 August, the day she died in 1910. She was born in Florence, Italy on 12 May 1820 and named after the city of her birth. Her parents were on a three year tour of Europe when she and her sister were born. Florence’s father inherited his fortune from an uncle who had owned a lead mine and country estates. Florence’s paternal grandfather had been a Sheffield Banker. Because of his rich inheritance Florence’s father didn’t need to work so he was able to introduce his family to fashionable places in Europe, they also owned two mansions in England – Lea Hurst, Derbyshire and Embley Park in Hampshire. During ‘the season’ they also stayed in London. The Nightingales were part of a large extended family that they often met with for parties and social events.


In the 19th century a wealthy family like Florence Nightingale would help with education and medical care or nursing of the sick or dying in their area. During her life-time Florence Nightingale was involved in teaching in local schools near her parent’s home. She would also go with her mother to take food to those who were sick or dying.


One story is told about her tending to a sheepdog called Cap. This probably happened when she was about 6 years old near Embley, the family home. The then vicar, Jarvis Trigge Giffard, of the local Anglican Church, St Margaret’s, East Wellow attests to the story. Cap, a shepherd’s collie, was discovered by Florence on the downs near Embley. The account says that:

‘Stones thrown by schoolboys had broken his leg, and the shepherd had intended to put him out of his misery by hanging him. However, with the guidance of the local vicar, Florence administered to the wounded animal, placing hot cloths as fomentations to reduce the swelling, thereby saving his leg and ensuring that Cap would continue as a working farm dog.’[2]


From this and other incidents during Florence Nightingale’s early life it became clear to her that she found great pleasure and satisfaction in caring for others who were sick and needy. As she grew older she became increasingly dissatisfied with her life of family parties, visits to London and travel abroad. In the 19th Century a woman of Nightingale’s social background was not expected to be educated or have a profession. Women of her class were expected to be accomplished in music, drawing and caring for a household but definitely not engage in nursing or hospital management.


Florence Nightingale’s family were Unitarians, but they would often worship at a local Anglican Church if there wasn’t a Unitarian Chapel nearby. Florence’s paternal grandmother was a devout Anglican who although married to a Unitarian continued to worship according to the Anglican tradition. This grandmother was devout and would say her prayers upon rising in the morning and again after lunch. Florence recalled many years later how:

‘We children,… knew that grandmother went up to say her prayers & we could hear her voice in the passage, speaking to God with such passion and earnestness – as if he were in the room, which he certainly was.’[3]

It seems that nominally Florence Nightingale would remain an Anglican although she ceased to attend church regularly as early as her thirties.


Her first sense of vocation, of God calling her to serve was on 7 February 1837 when she was only 16 years old. She recounts how ‘God spoke to me and called me to His service.’[4]This sense of calling would sustain her for many years. Her sense of vocation and calling continued to develop. Particularly at a retreat in Rome and while visiting Egypt her sense of vocation grew and developed.  During the retreat in Rome and at other visits to the Convent[5]she spoke with the Madra Santa Colombe who led the convent:

“Listening sympathetically to what Florence told her of her life at home, she had responded: ‘It is no good separating yourself from people to try and do the will of God. That is not the way to gain his blessing. What does it matter even if we are with people who make us desperate? So long as we are doing God’s will, it doesn’t matter at all.’”[6]


At the end of the ten day retreat Florence Nightingale recorded in her journal the following dialogue with the Madre:

‘MADRE: Did not God speak to you during this retreat? Did he not ask you anything? FLORENCE: He asked me to surrender my will.

MADRE: And to whom?

FLORENCE: To all that is upon the earth.

MADRE: He calls you to a very high degree of perfection. Take care. If you will resist you will be very guilty.’[7]


Florence and the Bracebridges returned home in 1850. Some months after their return Florence began to feel that she had never been away and she felt the old aimlessness assert itself. She wrote to her father: “‘Everything here is in statu quo atmosphere like a warm bath …,’”[8]


During a visit to Egypt in 1850 she had a moment of spiritual and intellectual epiphany which Bostbridge describes thus:

‘The lesson she derived from this was clear. God makes laws which mankind breaks, and man’s evil, equated with his error, is a necessary agent of the teaching through which God will bring each and every one of us to perfection.’[9]


These spiritual experiences during her life, coupled with meeting others interested in changing hospitals, schools and sanitation helped to prepare her for her future role in the nursing world in Britain and the world. In July 1851, while the Bracebridges were at a nearby spa, taking a cure, Florence Nightingale went for two weeks to Kaiserswerth where she observed their hospital, school and the way that nursing care was offered in a protestant context.


Her first real opportunity to work in the Nursing world was in 1853 when she was appointed the Superintendent of the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen, in Harley Street, London. This gave her the opportunity to put into practice what she had observed in hospitals in Europe and develop her skills as an administrator that would be so important during her time at the Military Hospital in Selimiye Barracks, Istanbul. In order to take up the position in London, she not only had to be appointed by the management committee of the hospital but also have her father’s expressed permission. He agreed for her to take up the appointment and committed to paying her an annual allowance of £500.   There was much family discussion and opposition to this move but eventually her family agreed to her taking the job as Superintendent.


The Crimean war broke out in March 1854. In October of 1854 Sydney Herbert, the Secretary of State for War asked Florence Nightingale to lead a nursing mission to Selimiye Barracks[10].   Very swiftly nurses were appointed and arrangement made for thirty-eight nurses, Florence Nightingale and the Bracebridges to accompany the group to the Military Barracks on the Asian side of the Bosphorus opposite to what was then known as the City of Constantinople. In the eighteenth century the barracks were in an area known as Scutari. The modern name is Selimiye or Haydarpaşa.


The barracks is still in use as a military establishment and stands proud overlooking the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. There is still a Museum there in memory of Florence Nightingale’s role in nursing the British Soldiers who fought in the Crimean War.


When the women arrived at the hospital they set about cleaning and making shirts. The promised supplies had not arrived and proper food was not available. Eventually Florence Nightingale and her nurses brought order to the situation and were allowed by the army doctors to go into the wards and nurse the men. It was vital that Florence Nightingale won over the medical staff in order that they could work together effectively. It was during her time as nursing superintendent at the Scutari hospital that Florence Nightingale became known as the lady with the lamp because of her use of a lamp when she visited the wards to check on the men at the dead of night. Florence Nightingale returned to Britain in August 1856, she was revered by the British public as the Lady with the lamp who had cared for the sick and wounded soldiers and greatly improved the mortality rate.


On returning to London she used her experience and influence to bring about changes in hospitals and sanitation in military barracks. She was well respected and had an amazingly wide influence. Her determination to fulfil God’s calling on her life to serve was fulfilled not only in the results in better patient care for the sick and wounded from the Crimean War but in the years that followed when she studied reports, made recommendations and campaigned for change. She went on to write her Notes for Nurses and to set up a school for nurses.


God has created us all in his image and has a vocation that only we can fulfil. Let us take heart from the way Florence Nightingale struggled to understand her vocation and then fulfil her calling in the face of strong opposition to her parents and older sister. Her family did eventually support her in the call to go and provide good nursing care to the soldiers in the Crimean War and they were very proud of her success in fulfilling the government’s commission of October 1854. The world is a richer place because of women like Florence Nightingale who wrestle with God and follow his leading in their lives.


Prayer inscribed by Florence Nightingale in her copy of St Thomas A Kempis’ book:

‘What will happen to her, O God, I do not know;

all I know is that nothing will happen that You have not ruled,

foreseen and ordained from all eternity …

I make my sacrifice one with that of Jesus Christ my saviour.’[11]

[1]Often referred to as Scutari.

[2] Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend. (Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition),  p. 46.


[3]Ibid p.32.

[4] Ibid p.54

[5] During her visit to Rome with Mr and Mrs Bracebridge in 1847/8. The Bracebridges would also accompany Florence to Istanbul when she worked at the hospital in Selimiye Barracks.

[6] Bostridge op cit p.120

[7] Ibid p.121

[8] Ibid p.122

[9] Ibid p.137

[10]These barracks are often referred to as ‘Scutari’ in modern Turkish they are referred to as the Selimiye Kışlası – which might be translated as the Sultan Selim III Barracks,

[11] These were the words of Madame Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, as she awaited execution as a prisoner in the Temple during the French Revolution. Using these words Florence submitted herself to the will of God. Idib p.210


Copyright © 2020 Rev Ros Wilkinson

6 Replies to “Florence Nightingale – Born 12 May 1820 – International Nurses Day 2020”

    1. Lou Ann – thanks for reading the article and leaving a comment. I hope you enjoy the other articles. Please sign up to be notified of further posts and the publication of my book.

    1. Gordon – thanks for reading this article. There are more to come and hopefully a book later on this year.

  1. A lovely little resume of Florence Nightingale’s life refreshing me of why we learned about her in school in the 50’s. I am sure her story helped inspired us girls to go on to take up further education and a career. Many from our town went away to the city to become nurses. Thank you. I look forward to more stories.

    1. Thank you Joyce for your comment. Florence Nightingale was indeed a wonderful woman who did much for nursing, public health and for the health of the armed forces.

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