Remember Florence Nightingale on International Nurses Day, May 12

By Patricia A. Tooker

Each year, International Nurses Day is celebrated on May 12. Timed to coincide with the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, International Nurses Day is an opportunity to honor our nurses for all they do and the commitment they have made to our communities.

The life story and personal example of Florence Nightingale is so central to the nursing profession that most nursing schools administer the Florence Nightingale Pledge to their graduates, much as medical schools administer the Hippocratic Oath.


But who was Florence Nightingale?

She was born on May 12, 1820, to wealthy English parents who were visiting Florence, Italy — hence, her name.

As history has recorded, Nightingale had a “calling” to service from God when she was 24 years old, which she interpreted as a mandate to help the sick and the poor by becoming a nurse. As the daughter of a wealthy family, however, she was expected not to work, and nursing was not then considered to be a respectable profession.

Against her parent’s wishes, Nightingale traveled to Germany to learn about nursing. Her studies took form from experience, as no formal training for nurses existed at the time. She treated the sick, distributed medicine, and assisted physicians in hospitals and clinics.

“We learned to think of our work, not of ourselves,” she recorded in her journal.

In 1854 she volunteered for service with the British army in the Crimean War, leading a team of 38 nurses onto the battlefield to aid injured soldiers on the front line. She improved sanitary conditions in the dirty, run-down military hospitals — a revolutionary idea at the time — and walked the dark halls at night with a lantern to offer comfort to the soldiers. Thus she became known as “The Lady of the Lamp.”

Her service during the Crimean War inspired Henri Dunant, the founder of the International Red Cross in 1864, and laid the foundation for Great Britain’s Public Health System some 40 years after her death.

Nightingale wrote “Notes on Hospitals,” explaining how to make improvements to hospitals, and “Notes on Nursing,” which articulated the high standards of the developing nursing profession. Combined with the Nightingale Training School that she founded at London’s St. Thomas Hospital (now the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery at King’s College London), these books shaped the development of professional nursing for the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Even today, they are mandatory reading in many schools of nursing.

Florence Nightingale died at the age of 90 on August 13, 1910, in London, and is buried near her family home in Hampshire County, England. On her side of the family grave marker is the simple inscription, “F.N. Born 1820. Died 1910.” She is commemorated on stamps, medals, and the British £10 note, and numerous monuments and museums around the world have been dedicated in her honor.

This May 12, remember Florence Nightingale and the modern nursing profession that she created.

Patricia A. Tooker, RN, MSN, FNP, is Dean for Integrated Learning at Wagner College and Assistant Professor of Nursing at the college’s Evelyn L. Spiro School of Nursing.

Wagner College is a U.S. News & World Report Top 25 regional college on Staten Island in New York City.

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