Birth - Death
1820 - 1910
Florence Nightingale is known today as the founder of the modern day nursing profession. This passion arose from her personal dedication to social reform in health sciences together with her practical experience of caring for wounded soldiers in the Crimean War of 1853-1856.
Following that war, Florence Nightingale established the world’s first nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, now part of King’s College. The purpose was to train nurses to work in hospitals in caring for the poor, and to address pressing areas of health such as sanitation and hygiene.
This school was the first professional training program to instruct women on the proper scientific procedures for care of war-inflicted injuries. Its establishment was coincident with the significant advances being made at the time in the medical community around issues related to the prevention of the spread of disease, the study of human anatomy, and the healing process of the body.
As part of her teaching program, Florence Nightingale became a prolific writer on medical topics. The format of her writing was designed to appeal to the less-educated women to encourage them to enter the nursing profession – the use of drawings and presentation of data and graphs, for example. Indeed, today she is known as a great nursing theoretician rather than as a great nurse.
Florence Nightingale adopted the scientific approach to her profession. She had a gift for mathematics and statistics and developed these skills for her teaching. In addition, she adopted the new discoveries on the adverse impacts of contaminated water on health, poor ventilation and the spreading of disease, and the detrimental effects of poor hygiene on health. To this end, she lobbied governments extensively to improve sanitary conditions in homes and cities.
Much of Florence Nightingale’s devotion to medical service and social reform came from her deep affection for religion and its calling. She remained chaste throughout her life while at the same time bemoaning the lack of career opportunities for women in the health profession. She was definitely not a feminist, and was of the opinion that men were more capable of leading in society because women were too emotional and sympathetic.
For her work, Nightingale received many recognitions and awards. Notable among these include being the first woman to receive Britain’s Order of Merit in 1907. She was also awarded the Royal Red Cross (a military honour) in 1883, and was appointed a Lady of Grace of the Order of St. John in 1904.
Florence Nightingale’s legacy in the field of nursing remains unsurpassed today. Nursing programs and hospitals around the world are named in her honour. In 1912, the International Committee of the Red Cross created the Florence Nightingale Medal to be awarded to outstanding nurses. Statues and museums exist in her name. Her portrait has appeared in British banknotes, and many film and television documentaries have portrayed her life.
Because of her chaste nature, which reflected her belief that her calling was in essence a religion, it can be difficult to confirm with absolute certainty Florence Nightingale’s sexual preference. However, researchers generally agree that her closest personal attachments and relationships were with women. She had several important and long-lasting intimate relationships with women, most notably with Mary Clarke from 1837 until her death. She was known as a tough and ruthless career woman who preferred the male identity over the female, often referring to herself in the masculine form. In her writings, she acknowledged that she had slept with other women and excited passions in them.
There is no doubt that Florence Nightingale had to struggle with her role in conventional society of her time, and she did so with steely determination and ambition. The barriers she faced included her society’s notion of the limited role of women. As a determined individual, she broke through many barriers and established a new profession that became dominated by women, yet based on scientific principles of proper medical care. Regardless of her sexual preference, does that not reflect the struggles of the lesbian woman through time?
- LGBTQ Recipients of the Order of Merit
- LGBTQ Mathematicians
- Prominent Medical Practitioners Who Identify as LGBTQ