History’s Badasses: Florence Nightingale

Last time on History’s Badasses, we covered a man named Simo Häyhä. He has been widely regarded by historians as one of the most successful snipers ever to live, with over 500 kills to his name. He defended his native country of Finland from Soviet invasion during World War II. He was so widely feared by the Soviet Army that they gave him the nickname “The White Death”.

This time, we’re talking about another wartime hero: Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. During her early life, she defied the conventions of her social status, choosing to study nursing and science rather than marry and have children. In 1854, she was sent to Constantinople to serve at a British hospital during the Crimean War. Later in life, she would write over 200 books and pamphlets, including a book considered to be foundational to modern nursing. An essay of hers called “Cassandra” is considered to be an early feminist work.

This is her story:

Early Life

Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy, on May 12, 1820. She was named after the city of her birth, and was part of a wealthy English family. Her mother, Francis Nightingale, came from a family of merchants, and her father, William Edward Nightingale, was a wealthy landowner. Florence was expected to grow up to be a lady, get married, and bear children – and do nothing else.

Despite this, as she grew up, she was socially awkward and preferred to avoid being the center of attention at all costs. She often butted heads with her mother, as she was strong-willed and thought her mother was too controlling. From a young age, she ministered to the sick and poor in the village near her family’s estate. Her father provided her with a classical education, including studies in mathematics and science as well as German, French, and Italian.

Though her parents expected their young daughter to marry a man of class and means, Florence had other ideas. She was convinced it was her God-given duty to take up nursing. She told her parents, but they flew into a rage and forbade her from receiving any nursing training. It was considered menial work and was completely inappropriate for a young lady.

In 1849, a gentleman named Richard Monkton Milnes proposed to Florence. She refused him. Florence explained that she was attracted to him, but that she believed she was called to something more than domestic life.

In 1850, she enrolled herself in nursing school despite her parents’ objections.

The Crimean War

Florence flourished in nursing school. After graduating, she got a job in London in a Harley Street hospital for ailing governesses. She impressed her employer so much that they promoted her to superintendent. After also volunteering at a cholera outbreak in a Middlesex hospital, Florence realized just how bad sanitary practices in English hospitals were, and decided it would be her life’s work to improve them.

The Crimean War broke out in October of 1853. Allied French and English forces fought against the Russian Empire for control of Ottoman territory. Thousands of British soldiers were sent to the Black Sea area. Just a year later, hospitals in the area were flooded with over 18,000 wounded and ill soldiers.

There were no female nurses in Crimea. Military doctors worked in poor conditions, with minimal help and minimal education. Most of England’s soldiers were dying not from their wounds, but from neglect in understaffed, unsanitary war hospitals.

By the end of 1854, the British Secretary of War, Sydney Herbert, wrote a letter to Florence Nightingale. He’d heard of her skill and asked her to organize a nursing corps to tend the fallen soldiers in Crimea. He gave her full control of the operation and complete authority. Florence jumped at the opportunity at once and compiled three dozen nurses and sailed with them to Constantinople.

The Horrors of Scutari

Florence and her corps of nurses arrived in Constantinople in 1854. They were assigned to a military hospital called Scutari. It was horrifically understaffed and sat on top of a literal cesspool which contaminated the entire building. When they reached the hospital, they found thousands of patients crammed into tiny, filthy cells, dying in their own excrement. Even the most basic necessities like soap and bandages were in short supply. More soldiers were dying from infectious diseases than from battle wounds. Many were starving from lack of proper food, as there were no cooking facilities and no chef to run them if there were The hospital’s death rate had soared to over 42%.

The doctors who ran the hospitals hated the idea of a woman stepping on their toes. The one thing they would allow Florence to do, though, was clean. Clean she did. She ordered hundreds of scrub brushes and asked the least infirm patients to help scrub the hospital. Once, during an inspection of the hospital’s water system, Florence once found an entire horse carcass lodged in a blocked pipe – the same water pipe where all of the hospital’s drinking and cleaning water was coming from. No wonder everyone was getting sick!

After scrubbing down the hospital, Florence created an organized kitchen and put a chef in charge. Finally, the patients were getting the food they needed so their bodies could heal. She also established a laundry, classroom, and library, and made sure the patients had intellectual stimulation and entertainment. She made sure her nurses washed their hands regularly – a practice that was not implemented in the medical profession until she came along!

The Lady With the Lamp

When she wasn’t cleaning, organizing, taking catalogs of needed supplies, or arguing with the head surgeon about his own hygiene, Florence would make her rounds through the hospital late at night to personally check on the wounded. She ministered to patient after patient with seemingly endless energy and compassion, walking through the hallways with just a single lamp.

The soldiers were so comforted by her presence that they began to call her “the Angel of Crimea”, or simply, “The Lady with the Lamp”.

Amidst endless opposition to her work and despite an extreme lack of supplies, Florence Nightingale managed to reduce the hospital’s death rate from 42% to just 2% during the Crimean War.

During her first winter in Scutary, 4,077 soldiers died. Ten times more soldiers died from illness such as typhus, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery than from their wounds. She had to call in the Sanitary Commission in March of 1855. Her experience in Crimea had a profound effect on the rest of her career. She thoroughly believed that the death rates were entirely due to poor nutrition, appalling sanitation, lack of supplies, stale air, and lack of proper rest. Those beliefs would spur her to entirely reshape the nursing profession for all time.

Legacy and Death

The Crimean conflict resolved in 1856, and Florence returned to her childhood home. Entirely to her surprise, she was met with a hero’s welcome. Queen Victoria had awarded her with an engraved brooch, and granted her a prize of $250,000 directly from the British government for her work in Constantinople.

Florence used the money to found St. Thomas’ Hospital, and her Nightingale Training School for Nurses. Eventually, even women from the upper classes began enrolling in her training school. Nursing was no longer frowned upon, but rather an honorable profession.

When she wasn’t teaching, Florence was writing. Based on her experience in Crimea, she wrote Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army – an enormous report about suggested reforms for military hospitals. This book ended up sparking an entire restructuring of the War Office’s administrative department and led to the establishment of the Commission for the Health of the Army in 1857.


Florence continued to work toward medical reform up until her death on August 12, 1910. Her funeral was a modest affair – just how she had wanted it to be. Her relatives turned down a national funeral. Instead, she was quietly buried in her family’s plot at St. Margaret’s Church, East Wellow, in Hampshire, England.

Florence Nightingale not only saved the lives of the soldiers in Scutari, but millions of lives after her death. She is broadly recognized and revered as the creator of modern nursing.

When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore.

– Florence Nightingale.