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Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Florence Nightingale is one of the best-known women in Victorian medicine. She was born in Florence, Italy, in 1820 and brought up in England. Although she is best remembered for her work during the Crimean War (1853-56), Nightingale fundamentally changed the role of nursing in hospitals, and was a key figure in introducing new professional training standards.

Nightingale took on nursing in the face of resistance from her family, who felt it was not a suitable profession for a woman with her high level of education. Her ideas about infection were formed by the experience she gained reorganising and improving the hygiene standards at the hospital at Scutari in Turkey during the Crimean War. On her arrival in Scutari she requested 80 more nurses and 300 scrubbing brushes. Nightingale worked to reduce the numbers of soldiers who were dying from illnesses such as typhus, caused by poor standards of cleanliness.

However, many people found Nightingale difficult to work with. She regarded both military doctors and the Sisters of Mercy, Catholic nuns acting as nurses, with suspicion and in some cases outright hostility. Nightingale clashed with Sir John Hall, Principal Medical Officer, as he insisted chloroform would not be used in amputations.

After the end of the war she turned her back on military medicine and returned to England in 1856. Four years later she established a training school for nurses in London. Like Edwin Chadwick, Nightingale believed that infection arose spontaneously from foul-smelling miasmas. Although her understanding of the source of infection was wrong, Nightingale still helped to improve hygiene standards. Her training school instructed many nurses who followed her hygiene principles, thereby reducing infections in the hospital environment.

Nightingale's work made nursing into a profession, and helped the creation of international associations such as the Red Cross.


Florence Nightingale and the Crimea, 1854-55 (London: Stationery Office, 2000)

M Bostridge, Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend (London: Viking, 2008)

L McDonald (ed.), Florence Nightingale on Women, Medicine, Midwifery and Prostitution (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005)

F Nightingale, Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is Not (New York: D Appleton and Company, 1860)

K Williams, ‘Florence Nightingale: the need for reappraisal’, Wellcome History, 37 (Spring 2008), pp 2-4

L Williamson (ed.), Florence Nightingale and the Birth of Professional Nursing (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999)

C Woodham Smith, Florence Nightingale (London: Penguin, 1951)




The science of health and how to maintain it. A condition or practice which promotes good health. The definition varies widely and differs across cultures.


A severe and often fatal infectious disease. It is transmitted mainly by body lice. Its symptoms are high fever, stupor, intense headache, and a dark red rash.