She Brought Grace, Strength and Social Reform
Iconic figures of history demonstrate the rare qualities that are demanded of them to bring needed change, such as grit, creative stamina, and determination to follow their own path. Inspired by this stoic human quality, we are publishing a series looking at women who have lived their lives like pearls. This is another installment of the Living like a Pearl series. Find the other stories here.
Named after the city she was born in, Florence Nightingale entered the world on May 12th, 1820 in Florence, Italy to an upper-class British family. Growing up in England with a liberal-humanitarian outlook, she studied history, mathematics, philosophy, and classical literature with her father's enthusiasm for women's education. This early influence forged her path to becoming an icon of Victorian culture with the persona of "The Lady with the Lamp”, and was appointed a Lady of Grace of the Order of St John.
Following what she believed were calls from God and a strong desire to devote her life to service, she worked hard to educate herself in nursing. However, she had to overcome her family’s strong opposition to enter the nursing field, and despite their objections, she turned away from the restrictive social codes of the time for a woman of her status to be a wife and mother.
Described as attractive, slender, and graceful, her often severe demeanor was said to be blessed with a charming and radiant smile. Despite several suitors and courtships, she rejected them, convinced that marriage would interfere with her ability to follow her calling to nursing.
Florence’s most famous contribution came during the Crimean War, fought from 1853 to 1856, where she earned the nickname "The Lady with the Lamp" by her solitary rounds with a little lamp in her hand, after all the medical staff had retired for the night.
Arriving at the Turkish Army barracks in Istanbul in November 1854, improving the horrific conditions of the wounded at the military hospital became her central focus. Discovering that inadequate care was provided by overworked medical staff, she observed that mass infections and fatalities occurred from lack of medical supplies and poor hygiene. Facing indifference from local officials, her pleas to the British government for help resulted in a prefabricated hospital built in England to be shipped to Turkey, reportedly reducing the death rate from 42% to 2%.
By recognizing the role of poor nutrition, air quality, and overworked medical staff, she set a new standard of hygienic nursing practices. The first official nurses' training program opened in 1860, named ‘The Nightingale School for Nurses’ – now called the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery at King's College in London. In 1883, Nightingale became the first recipient of the Royal Red Cross, and in 1904, she was appointed a Lady of Grace of the Order of St John.
To this day, International Nurses Day is celebrated each year on her birthday, giving proper recognition for her role in professionalizing nursing roles for women.
With the perfection of her pearl complete, Florence died peacefully in her sleep at 90 years old in 1910, leaving her lamp to continue shining its lighting in the world.