When Boris Johnson lay on his sickbed in St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, he couldn’t have been in better hands. It’s where Florence Nightingale, born 200 years ago this May, founded the world’s first nursing school. Her bicentennial exhibition at the hospital museum showcasing 200 of her treasured possessions including her pet owl Athena (rescued in Greece and now stuffed) opened in March and was closed by coronavirus the same month. Belinda Beckett peeps beneath the dust sheets to shine new light on the Lady with the Lamp.

A ‘Downton Abbey’ Lifestyle

Money, power and social standing – the Nightingale family had it in spades. Servants and butlers for TWO family estates, Mayfair rooms for the London season, European travel and baby Florence was named after her Italian birth city. Home-schooled in England by her father who believed in education for women, up to a point. She was an accomplished mathematician, fluent in four languages and determined, at 17, never to marry or lead the life of the idle rich.

Her parents were equally convinced that she should, if only to squash her ideas of becoming a nurse, work fit only for servants! Florence rejected all suitors until they gave in and handed her a comfortable annuity. At 33, after four months training in Germany, she became Superintendent of a Harley Street hospital for ‘Sick Gentlewomen’. Strong females run in the family. Helena Bonham-Carter is her first cousin three times removed.

Media Star

An illustrated article in The Times turned Florence into the Crimean War’s poster nurse overnight. ‘She is a ministering angel’, eulogised the flowery report ‘. As her slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every poor fellow’s face softens with gratitude at the sight of her… with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds.’ It was the first war with correspondents and artists at the front, and civilians back home lapped up the coverage. The Lady with the Lamp, a light in the darkness for soldiers at war, struck a national chord. She attained something close to sainthood in Britain. But Florence wouldn’t have appreciated the attention. She hated having photographs taken or her portrait painted and had no time for sentimentality and hyperbole.

Giving the Army its Marching Orders

When Florence and her team of 38 female volunteers hit the hospital at Scutari, British Army bigwigs were appalled. “The petticoat imperium in the medical imperio,” fumed Sir John Hall, Chief MO.

The nurses were horrified too, by the state of the place. Straw covering the floors to soak up the blood, scant supplies, dirty linen, dirty water, rats… More soldiers were dying from infection than battle wounds due to poor care delivered by overworked staff in the face of official indifference. ‘The very first requirement in a hospital is that it should do the sick no harm’, Nurse Nightingale insisted.

She raided the stores, went over heads to her friend the British War Secretary for fresh supplies and had the British Sanitary Commission over to install proper ventilation and sanitation. The indignant Sir John reported: ‘Miss Nightingale shows an ambitious struggling after power inimical to the true interests of the medical department.’

Nightingale’s Nurses cut the hospital death rate from 60 to 2% and hand washing became de rigeur, regardless of rank, under the iron rule of Matron Florence who stated: ‘I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse’.

Nightingale Writing a Best Seller

Despite the dry title, Notes on Nursing: What it Is, and What it Is Not (1865) was a book everyone wanted to read. It was written by the celebrated Lady with the Lamp! Decades ahead of its time, it covered mental health, alternative therapies and communications skills as well as basic home nursing. It is still essential reading for student nurses today, in print or on Kindle.

After the war Nightingale visited almost every hospital in Europe and filled 16 volumes with her findings. Her Notes on Hospitals informed hospital design for the next century. A stickler for data collection, she also pioneered the first medical infographics. She was using pie charts and graphs to provide clear evidence that more soldiers were dying from poor hygiene than war. ‘To understand God’s thought, we must study statistics,’ she said.

Pioneering Modern Nursing

Nurses had a poor image in Victorian times, wickedly caricatured in the figure of Mrs. Gamp, the drunken and incompetent nurse in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. Nightingale Nurses, uniformed in starched white aprons and mob caps, elevated nursing from servants’ work to a profession.

The Nightingale Training School opened at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1860, deploying fully-fledged nurses around the world. Today it is also attached to King’s College London, with a grander title, and the Florence Nightingale Medal is still the highest international nursing distinction.

Pride and Prejudice

Despite being a female role model, Nightingale was often scathing about her sex. She thought men had done more to further her goals. Florence wrote: ‘I have never found one woman who has altered her life by one iota for me or my opinions,’ and ‘Women have no sympathy and my experience of women is almost as large as Europe’.

She railed against women’s rights: ‘When it urges women to do all that men do, merely because men do it, and without regard to whether this is the best that women can do’ she wrote. Subsequently, she also stated that by trying to be men ‘women doctors have only succeeded in being third-rate men.’

Lytton Strachey, author of Eminent Victorians, was not alone in finding her ‘personally intolerable although admirable in her achievements’. ‘A demon possessed her,’ he wrote. ‘Now demons, whatever else they may be, are full of interest. In the real Miss Nightingale there was more that was interesting than in the legendary one; there was also less that was agreeable.’

Royal Favourite

Queen Victoria rewarded Nightingale’s wartime service with a bespoke gold and diamond medal. It was sent out to the front with a letter stating: ‘It will be a very great satisfaction to me when you return at last to these shores, to make the acquaintance of one who has set so bright an example to our sex.’ King Edward VII, was also a fan, awarding her his new Order of Merit – the first woman to receive the honour.

The Nightingale Effect

Florence Nightingale had a hand in most of Britain’s health-related legislation for the last half of the 19th century. She influenced pushing through compulsory sanitation in private homes, introducing trained nurses to workhouses, campaigning for the abolition of prostitution laws and knocking healthcare for all classes of society into shape. She lived to see 90, it must have been all that hand washing.

Her legacy continues today in the NHS Nightingale at London’s ExCel Centre, converted in nine days into the world’s largest critical care unit for coronavirus patients. Prince Charles who opened the 4,000-bed hospital by video link in his first ‘virtual’ royal engagement commented: “The lady with the lamp brought hope and healing to thousands in their darkest hour. In this dark time this place will be a shining light.”

Her bicentennial exhibition, Nightingale in 200 Objects, People & Places, can be viewed online at


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