Florence Nightingale Answered God’s Call
by Donna Jacobs
An upper-class 19th-century woman might pick flowers for a silver-service buffet breakfast at 10 a.m., play the harpsichord at 11, take an afternoon walk, read, eat at 4 p.m., play a game of backgammon, have tea at 7, play the piano until 10 and snack before bedtime at 11. The next day, she might do it all over again.
It drove Florence Nightingale to the brink of suicidal despair.
Her mother, Fanny, and her older sister, Parthenope, loved the idle hours spent reading to one another, taking drives, going to parties and balls. In the privacy of her personal scribblings, Florence seethed: “Why write, read or paint when nothing can come of it? Why be expected to look merry and to say something lively mornings, noons and nights?”
Fortunately, William Edward Nightingale educated his daughters himself in Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, history and philosophy. He hired a governess for music and drawing.
Florence found sanity in books. As her mind and wit sharpened, she became a great favourite of England’s high society. Florence was 16 and immersed in preparations for an 18-month family tour of Europe when she records a decisive moment: “on February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to His service.”
Upon their return, she begged her father for instruction in mathematics. When he reluctantly agreed, she rose at 6 a.m. to do math, read philosophy and studied Greek.
She turned down marriage with a man she had long loved. Instead, she gave her heart to the social disaster known as “the hungry forties,” years of starvation and pestilence.
To the horror of her family, she announced in 1844 that she wanted to tend the sick in hospital. Nurses were often prostitutes and alcoholics. No decent, delicately raised woman could survive the disease-ridden wards.
Before dawn, though, by candlelight, she secretly pored over public health and hospital reports, beginning a life-long dedication to statistics.
During a family trip to Egypt, she records more mystical communications. March 7, 1849: “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for Him, for Him alone without the reputation.” May 12: “Today I am 30—the age Christ began His mission. Now no more childish things. No more love. No more marriage.”
In 1851, after a family showdown, she took a step toward freedom. She lived at an orphans’ asylum and worked in hospitals.
When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, she trained as a nurse and arrived, by government appointment, with 40 other nurses and supplies in Turkey.
She was appalled. Hellishly dirty wards built over seeping sewers were filled with untended, nearly naked, half-starving men suffering from severe wounds, scurvy, dysentery, cholera and exposure.
The soldiers had survived a boat trip on which the sick and amputees had lain on deck, rolling over one another, screaming. They arrived saturated in blood and feces. No food or water or clean bedding or care awaited. There were no supplies.
In one two-month period, Florence supplied from her own funds and charitable donations 6,000 shirts, 2,000 socks, 500 pairs of pants, plates, cutlery, operating tables, towels, soap, warm clothes, combs and pillows.
“When a flood of sick came in,” writes her biographer, Cedric Woodham-Smith, “she was on her feet for 24 hours at a stretch. She was known to pass eight hours on her knees dressing wounds.”
During her night rounds, the Lady of the Lamp tried to speak to as many as she could.
“What a comfort it was to see her pass even,” one soldier wrote. “We lay there by the hundreds; but we could kiss her shadow as it fell and lay our heads on the pillow again content.”
She returned to England after the war a haunted woman. She collapsed in 1857 and began her invalid years. Yet, busier than ever, she met with and wrote to royalty and administrators around the world to improve hospitals and medical care. The Nightingale Training School for Nurses was duplicated by the thousands worldwide.
As her strength left, she surrounded herself with family, friends and students. Finally, time stole her sight and her memory. Her lucid hours were gradually eclipsed by coma. On August 13, 1910, she died in her sleep.