In honor of Women’s History Month: Unconventional and Intersectional
March 22, 2021 at 5:00 AM
by Sharma C. McKinney APRN FNP-C CARN-AP (she/her)
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The world is put back by the death of everyone who has to sacrifice the development of his or her peculiar gifts to conventionality. – Florence Nightingale

One hallmark of nursing school is learning of The Lady With the Lamp, the nurturing woman who, during the Crimean War, despite her exalted social status, spent her life tending to sick soldiers, urging people to wash their hands, and elevating the status of the nurse to a calling beyond a housekeeper with a strong stomach. Being the founder of modern nursing is an incredible credit, but it is not Florence Nightingale’s only legacy.

Florence Nightingale was a statistician. She tirelessly gathered information regarding horrifying mortality rates.   She brought light to the trust that soldiers were dying from the unhygienic conditions of the camps, not just from the injuries of war. She collected data, analyzed the numbers, interpreted the results, and formulated graphical displays of the findings (all while carrying around a lamp?).  The conclusions she tabulated provided evidence that hand washing, cleanliness, and hygiene are paramount in hospitals.  These conclusions also gave nurses agency and accountability for the health of those they care for, “If a patient is cold, if a patient is feverish, if a patient is faint, if he is sick after taking food, if he has a bed-sore, it is generally not a fault of the disease, but of the nursing”. She was the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society in 1858.

She was a voice for the poor. Following the Crimean War, Florence worked with politicians to improve hospital standards for the underserved and marginalized communities. She wrote about the dignity that should be given to all those who are ill, despite their lineage or wealth. Florence Nightingale felt it was important that patients be able to see those talking to them, a concept we find obvious today, but made her a pioneer of bringing personal connection to medicine. 

Florence Nightingale was an author. She wrote Notes on Nursing, published in 1859.  This was the basis for the curriculum of the Nightingale Training School at Sr. Thomas’ Hospital (now known as the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery and part of King’s College in London). This book included information on ventilation, noise, “petty management”, light, cleanliness, observation of the sick, environmental concerns, and how they should be applied when caring for patients.

She was queer, possibly bisexual, some say asexual. Florence Nightingale never married, devoting her life to her work, but there are mentions in her own writings and biographies about her romantic relationships. “I have lived and slept in the same beds with English Countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have”. As a young woman, her most notable suitor was the poet and politician Richard Monckton Milnes. She sustained a 9-year relationship with him before ultimately rejecting his proposal, feeling that relationship would interfere with her calling to nursing. Documentation of her life also shows times when she expressed disconnection from sexual attraction altogether, possibly related to bouts of severe depression and chronic illness. 

It is impossible to put Florence into a box. Although there are quotes of her discouraging women from giving speeches, this is in stark opposition to the time she spent attempting to overcome sexist barriers in medicine and statistics. The picture of a passive, quiet, motherly caregiver is shattered by the person in bed with English Countesses by night and fighting for social justice and basic human decency among the powerful politicians by day. Florence Nightingale’s alternative approach to improving the lives of those she cared for, her scrupulous measures providing evidence to back up her theories, and the overlapping social identities she held make her both an unconventional and intersectional woman. 

“Were there none who were discontented with what they have, the world would never reach anything better.” Her discontent with the status quo and actions to change them makes Florence Nightingale far from just a nurturing lady with a lamp. She was complex, but perhaps it is the atypical aspects of her character that created the admirable outcomes for medicine we still study today.