International Nurses Day: Remembering the heroic Florence Nightingale on her 200th birthday

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Florence Nightingale is considered to be the mother of modern nursing. Photo credit: National Library of Medicine.

Today marks International Nurses Day, a day celebrated in honor of the men and women working in hospitals and clinics around the world. The day also commemorates the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the 19th century nurse and statistician often recognized as the pioneer of modern nursing. 

On today’s Daily Dose, Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, looks back at Nightingale’s impact on the medical field, and what she would make of today’s COVID-19 pandemic.

Nightingale’s ground-breaking work defined the crucial role nurses play in medicine today.  

Born in Florence, Italy, Nightingale excelled in math and foreign languages, according to Wilkes. Growing up, she learned how to speak six languages, including Latin, Greek, and French. 

During her time as a war nurse during the Crimean War, Nightingale worked to improve hospital conditions for the ill. According to Wilkes, patients often caught new diseases in hospitals instead of receiving treatment for existing diseases. Her notes, as he explains, showed that nearly a hundred times as many men died of infections than they did on the battlefield. 

Nightingale helped develop the pavillion model based on her wartime observations. It was based on building different wards for patients depending on their illness or disease. She also championed the concept of placing large windows in hospitals, to provide fresh air and sunlight to patients in recovery, as well as providing fresh water and blankets to all patients. These advances in sanitation even shaped architectural ideas of future generations

However, Wilkes says her ideas weren’t always accepted: “We think of these things as sort of second nature today …  at the time considered shocking and bold and unheard of suggestions.”

Before Nightingale, nurses were often associated with religious orders and did not receive formal training. She believed that nurses were vital to the medical field, and that they should work alongside physicians, not behind them, Wilkes says. 

She would also put in extra hours to care for the sick, Wilkes says. “She was called ‘the Lamp Lady’ in her time because when everyone else went home at the end of the day, she stayed and continued to work for the sick.”

Wilkes says that Nightingale would be content with how hospitals operate today.

“She'd be proud that today, just like in days past, nurses responded to society's call for care, even when it involved danger to themselves,” he says.

The use of PPE, keeping patients separated from one another, and constant cleaning during COVID-19 are all practices rooted in Nightingale’s teachings, Wilkes says.




Chery Glaser