May 12: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale (1820)

Florence Nightingale

It was on this date, May 12, 1820, that English nurse Florence Nightingale, known as “The Lady with the Lamp” after her habit of making rounds at night, was born into an English family in Florence, in what is now Italy. Her father believed women, especially his children, should get an education. So Nightingale learned Italian, Latin, Greek, history, and mathematics. Believing she had received a call from God to devote her life and nursing training to the service of others, Florence and a staff of volunteer nurses (and some Catholic nuns) traveled to the Ottoman Empire to nurse British soldiers wounded in Crimean War battles but suffering in still higher numbers from typhus, typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Florence used her mathematics training to invent a statistical model to plot the incidence of preventable deaths in the military. She developed the “polar-area diagram” to dramatize the needless deaths caused by unsanitary conditions. As she demonstrated, statistics provided an organized way of learning and lead to improvements in medical and surgical practices. That and her insistence on simple sanitation and better nutrition saved countless soldiers’ lives. “Were there none who were discontented with what they have,” she said, “the world would never reach anything better.”

After the war, Florence established what is now called the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, part of King’s College London. In 1883, Queen Victoria awarded Florence Nightingale the Royal Red Cross. In 1907, she became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit. Florence never married, believing marriage would distract her from her chosen profession.

Few who know of her life realize that she despised the churches and was an advanced Rationalist. “I am so glad that my God is not the God of the High Church or of the Low,” said Florence, “that he is not a Romanist or an Anglican—or a Unitarian.”* She disliked that the Church of England, itself an elite organization, although she never officially left it, but decried that it seemed intent on worsening the oppression of the poor. She questioned the goodness of a God who would consign souls to hell, believing even those who died without being “saved” will eventually make it to Heaven. Florence argued that secular hospitals provided better care than religious hospitals. Florence Nightingale died in London on 13 August 1910. For most of her ninety years, she had pushed for reform of the British military health-care system and brought increased respect to the nursing profession.

* Quoted in Florence Nightingale as a Religious Thinker, W.G. Tarrant, 1914, p12.

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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Posted in Famous Freethinkers, Medicine, Science

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John Mill

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