Who was the Lady with the Lamp?
Lo! in that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering gloom,
And flit from room to room.
– Henry W. Longfellow.
Hiram Maxim’s Machine Gun. William Mill’s Grenades. Carl Scheele’s Chlorine Gas. Samuel Colt’s Revolver. Richard Gatling’s Gun. Despite the indispensable and innovative progress that it brought to the world, the Industrial Revolution pioneered it’s share of death. As weapons became less personal, the fatalities of war rose so steeply that casualties became simple statistics to be fed into the machine of war. Consequently, the second half the 19th century was marked with wars too numerous to count. In many cases, as soon as the bullets were off the assembly line, they were fired from a new rifle, by a new young recruit, in a new war. The Austro-Prussian War, The Franco-Prussian War, The Russo-Turkish War, The Sino–French War, The Spanish–American War, and the Boer War constituted only a few of the dozens of conflicts that were fought under a myriad of political, colonial, interventional, and mercantilist flags. However, all of them rendered the same outcome: death, maiming, and lifelong psychological scars. This was the world into which Florence was born.
She would never have to know of these far off conflicts; never experience their devastation and never feel the loss of a loved one because Florence was born into Britain’s upper classes. In her role as a socialite, she could well afford to lead a contented, delicate life; enjoying the fruits of the industrial revolution’s financial success. She had but to dine with the wealthy, flirt with the handsome and live without a single unmet necessity.
Complacency was how Florence saw it. Thousands of the wealthy living and dying, changing nothing. She knew that if she stayed content with her life of luxury, she would die in comfort, and the world would still spin on, more violent every day. She began to dream. Dreams of changing the world, for being remembered for more than elegant balls.
One cold morning in 1850, Florence entered her father’s study. Assuming that she was there to discuss her latest social event or perhaps one of her many suitors, her father was shocked at what she told him. “I am going to be a nurse”. He forbade her. She would never take that menial job, unbecoming of a lady. Not only did her proposition defy logic, but it went against every social stigma associated with their class! But Florence’s resolute face spoke louder than words.
Amongst a flurry of gossip and social rejection, Florence would turn her back to white halls, and grand ballrooms and the pride of her family. She boarded a ferry that took her across the channel and closer to what she knew to be right. The nursing schools of 1851 were as expansive as the period medical knowledge allowed, which was all taught in a three month course. Florence gleaned what knowledge she could from the Kaiserswerth school for nursing in Germany. She toured hospitals, treated minor injuries, and assisted doctors in surgery. Florence had shown immense bravery in following her dream, and rejecting the posh social life she was raised in, but she couldn’t imagine that her dream led to her current position as an assistant. Complacency continued to haunt Florence. What more must happen for her to fulfill her purpose?
The answer came with the broadside of a Russian frigate tearing into an Ottoman patrol boat. These first shots triggered the diplomatic domino effect; causing allies to fall into their respective sides. The Crimean War had begun.
At first, the war appeared to be running its course; each side giving and taking. But then the combatants dug in. For months, as the two sides slaughtered each other in siege after siege, the medics became alarmingly overwhelmed by the number of casualties. There weren’t any deaths, but soldiers with simple wounds. So many wounded poured into the British Constantinople army hospital, where they were not getting treated for weeks. As the wounds fester, and the men sat in agony, rampant disease made the military hospitals more lethal than the battlefield. The wounds caused a 42% fatality rate among patients. Florence heard the news and was on the next transport to the frontline. Despite her zeal, Florence was ignored by the doctors. She then turned to the papers. She told them of the hospitals, and how many more were dying in British hospital beds than on the battlefields. Furious at the news, the high command gave control of the hospital to Florence. She was taken on a tour of the facility, and was shocked with what she found: the beds had long become overcrowded, and the wards overflowed into the hallways. By the end of the tour, Florence’s white shoes were crimson. The hospital had not been cleaned since the war began. She knew what must be done. Instead of taking up the scalpel and syringe, Florence took a sponge and pail, and mopped. Foot by foot, she scrubbed the hallways, which by length amounted to approximately 3 miles. She cleaned the bed sheets, sanitized the equipment and enforced strict hygiene amongst the staff. She worked days bandaging and cleaning. She worked nights, moving from bed to bed, changing the bandages under the light of her lantern. She aided with such care, that her daily rounds became a staple in the lives of the patients. Later that year, the same newspapers that had reported a 42% fatality rate, proudly announced that “the lady with the lamp” and her reforms had lowered the death rate to only 4%.
Florence returned home a hero. Her sacrifice and determination to challenge the status quo had more than fulfilled her dream. It had given nursing a new face. Florence had shown the world for the first time the grace, care, and mercy that accompanied the “menial” occupation of nursing, and introduced the newly dubbed “corps of nurses” that can be found aiding on almost every western battlefield to this day.
While the weapons of Maxim and Colt tore the world apart, the love and sacrifice of Florence Nightingale put it back together. The world was reminded in the midst of war of the beauty of a lone, consoling, loving, lamp in the dark.
Florence was finally contented. She was not known to the upper class as a socialite, she was known to the 16,000 soldiers she snatched from death’s door as “the lady with the lamp”.