Why Florence Nightingale was so much more than the ‘Lady with the Lamp’

The image of Florence Nightingale floating angelically along hospital corridors bearing a beacon of light has gone down in history. But does this simplistic image obscure a much more impressively complex life and career? As we mark the bicentenary of the famous nurse's birth, Mark Bostridge reveals more about her achievements

British nurse Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), aka the 'Lady with the lamp', makes her rounds during the Crimean War. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Today, 12 May 2020, is 200 years since the birth of one of the most significant figures in the history of medicine: Florence Nightingale.

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To mark the bicentenary of Nightingale’s birth, historian Mark Bostridge spoke on the HistoryExtra podcast about her life and greatest achievements – and argues that she was far more complex than we might initially believe.

Over the past two centuries, the Lady with the Lamp myth – of a saintly, compassionate saviour going around hospital wards wiping soldiers’ brows ­– has proven very hard to overcome.”

But behind this legend, Bostridge explains, lies a woman whose achievements were much more wide-ranging than is often recognised.


Listen: Mark Bostridge reflects on Florence Nightingale’s work at the Crimean War and beyond

Who was Florence Nightingale?

Born in Florence, Italy (and named for the city) in 1820, Florence Nightingale was the daughter of William Edward and Frances Nightingale. The family returned to England when Florence was a small child, dividing their time between Derbyshire and Hampshire.

As she grew older, Nightingale developed a profound interest in politics, philosophy and reilgion. She believed she had a calling to reduce human suffering, and completed two weeks of nursing training in Germany in 1850 – despite reservations that nursing was not a suitable profession for a woman of her background.

Just a few years later, Nightingale was given charge of nursing British and allied soldiers in Turkey during the Crimean War – a feat for which she is now known around the world.

Florence Nightingale is remembered primarily for her work improving conditions in military hospitals during the Crimean war.

But, argues Bostridge, rather than viewing this wartime work as her crowning achievement, we should instead see it as a jumping off point for the pioneering and diverse career that followed.

“Despite suffering from chronic brucellosis as the result of an infection she picked up during the Crimean war [and] being depressed and suffering terrible spinal pain, Nightingale worked harder than any of us can imagine in all sorts of areas,” says Bostridge. “[This work was] not only in the establishment of secular nursing, but also reforming the army medical services; she was responsible for the design of hospitals and published the seminal text Notes on Nursing.

One of the things that's often overlooked about Nightingale is the fact that she was a highly significant progenitor of a national health service

Several of Nightingale’s other achievements are not so well known. Bostridge believes that one of her greatest was the attempt to introduce trained nurses into workhouses, in both Britain and Ireland. “With these reforms, Nightingale was making a very clear statement – a ringing declaration of the idea that even if you have no money, you should still have a basic right to good health care. One of the things that’s often overlooked about Nightingale is the fact that she was a highly significant progenitor of a national health service.

‘Lady with the stats’

Nightingale also worked to improve the situation of peasants in India by working to tackle problems posed by a lack of irrigation. This work, according to Bostridge, relied on a remarkable ability “to process statistical information, analyse the data and then propose solutions”.

It was Nightingale’s impressive grasp of statistics that saw her appointed the first woman fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. She pioneered new methods of presenting data, such as the Rose Diagram – a graphic she created to expose the devastating influence of disease on the mortality rates of British soldiers during the Crimean War.

“Nightingale wanted to be able to communicate important statistics to as large a number of people as possible,” says Bostridge. “She was always fascinated by statistics, and said she’d much rather read a book of statistics than a novel. That was her idea of relaxation. I think that ability with statistics is a clue to what made her so extraordinary.

“A brilliant writer”

And it wasn’t only in scientific fields that Nightingale made an impact. Another of her greatest achievements, which shows the extent to which she was a polymath, is her essay Cassandra,” says Bostridge.

Written when she was an unfulfilled daughter living at home, the essay looks at the limitations placed on the lives of upper middle-class women who were unable to work and found their energies frustrated. “Cassandra was highly influential on later writers such as JS Mill and Virginia Woolf, who described it as being nothing less than a scream of anguish, impotence and frustration,” says Bostridge.

“As well as having one of the great administrative minds of the 19th century, Nightingale was a brilliant letter writer and essayist,” says Bostridge. “She was a polymath who ranged over classical languages, modern languages, statistics, medicine, hospital construction – a complex character who could turn her hand to so many things.”

As we mark her bicentenary, it’s important to remember – Nightingale was much more than just the Lady with the Lamp.

Listen to Mark Bostridge on the HistoryExtra podcast

Mark Bostridge is a British writer and critic, known for his historical biographies

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Ellie Cawthorne is the section editor of BBC History Magazine