South London Memories: Building on the legacy of Florence

This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the pioneer of modern nursing, writes Nzinga Cotton.

The World Health Organization has declared it the “International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife” in her honour.

Lambeth has the Florence Nightingale Museum, but the Lady with the Lamp also had a strong connection to St Thomas’ Hospital in Waterloo – where she established the first professional nursing school.

Born on May 12, 1820, Florence felt it was her calling to become a nurse from an early age.

She was captivated by the idea of becoming a nurse; a passion that distressed her parents, as nursing was viewed as an unfit profession for a respectable woman.

Florence studied nursing secretly, defying her parents and the expectations of society which, she believed, rendered middle class women unable to make full use of their energy, drive and intelligence.

But Florence did not give up. Eventually in 1851 her father gave his permission and Florence went to Germany to train as a nurse at the Deaconess Institution Hospital for the poor and sick. She wrote at the time: “Now I know what it is to love life!”

When she returned she became a manager of a hospital for women in London.

In 1854 Florence was asked to go to Turkey to manage the nursing of British soldiers wounded in the Crimean War.

The British hospital base was crowded and unhygienic, and more soldiers were dying from infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera than from injuries incurred in battle.

Florence was working at a Harley Street nursing home when she learned of the horrific conditions facing British army soldiers in their Crimean War hospital base at Scutari.

The Secretary of State for War asked her to lead a team of 38 nurses to make urgent improvements.

Faced with appalling conditions, Florence Nightingale and her nurses – whom she called her ‘daughters’ – worked tirelessly, walking miles of hospital corridors to attend to thousands of casualties, bringing order, organisation, new supplies and cleanliness.

She instilled discipline among her nurses, whom she ensured were treated with respect and who, in turn, treated soldiers equally, regardless of rank. At Scutari, she set up reading rooms, a non-alcoholic café and a banking system, and became adored by her patients.

As all of this was happening, back in Britain, reports from the Illustrated London News and The Times fixed Florence Nightingale as the popular public symbol of the war and propelled her to instant fame as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’.

Florence improved conditions at the hospital, which resulted in far fewer soldiers dying from their injuries.

Crimean War: Florence Nightingale going around the wards at Scutari Hospital. Wood engraving.

During the war she became known as the Lady With the Lamp because she would check British soldiers throughout the night.

Queen Victoria awarded Florence a jewelled brooch in 1855, designed by her husband Prince Albert, as a “mark of esteem and gratitude for her devotion towards the Queen’s brave soldiers”.

Florence Nightingale loathed the, in her own words, ‘buzz fuzz’ of celebrity, shunned the limelight and, on her return to Britain, travelled as Mrs Smith.

The following 50 years of her life are often glossed over in favour of her Crimean efforts, but it was in this period of her life that she transformed healthcare, inspiring generations of nurses.

She used statistics – another personal passion – research and evidence to physically change the design and structure of hospitals and their working practices in ways which remain today.

In 1860, Florence established the first professional nursing school in the world at St Thomas’ Hospital, close to where Guy’s Hospital now stands.

The Nightingale School of Nursing laid the foundation of professional nursing and established St Thomas’, which is part of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, as the home of modern nursing.

It had a global impact and notable students included Linda Richards, America’s first trained nurse.

Thanks to Florence Nightingale and the Nightingale School, nursing was now seen as a very respectable profession for women.

Throughout her life Florence used innovation and data to improve patient care, and professionalise nursing.

She even influenced the design of the wards at St Thomas’ Hospital, by proposing full height windows to provide better light and ventilation.

Florence was awarded the first Royal Red Cross, and was the first woman inducted into the Order of Merit.

All the while, Florence was suffering with illness, which meant that much of her writing, analysis of statistics and cajoling of medical experts and establishment figures took place amid bouts of fever, insomnia, exhaustion and depression.

On August 13, 1910, at the age of 90, she died peacefully in her sleep in Mayfair, central London.

Guy’s and St Thomas’ will be celebrating Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary throughout 2020.

There will be events and activities at the trust every month with a different theme, including nursing education, training, and leadership development.]

The trust held special events across its hospitals and community sites to launch its celebrations last month.

To continue to honour Florence’s legacy and support the development of nurses and midwives, Guy’s and St Thomas’ launched the Nightingale Nurse Award on International Nurses’ Day in May 2017.

The award is unique to the trust and recognises its most outstanding nurses and midwives.

It involves them completing a programme of work, then receiving a badge, certificate and have the honour of being known as a ‘Nightingale Nurse’.

The trust is also supporting the Nightingale Challenge, which encourages hospitals across the world to provide leadership and development training for 20,000 young nurses and midwives.

The campaign calls on large employers of nurses to give at least 20 young nurses and midwives the skills they need to play an even more influential role in delivering healthcare.

The Florence Nightingale Museum has worked with nurses at Guy’s and St Thomas’ to launch a new exhibition, Family Corner.

Children can dress up as a nurse and find out from the Trust’s Nightingale Nurse award-winners what they like most about their jobs.

Dame Eileen Sills, Chief Nurse and Deputy Chief Executive at Guy’s and St Thomas’ said: “At Guy’s and St Thomas’ we are extremely proud of our strong connections to Florence Nightingale, and it is incredibly important to us that we build on her legacy of delivering outstanding compassionate care.”

The Woman behind the ‘Lamp’

A new exhibition opening this March will reveal the true character, obsessions and achievements of Florence Nightingale, a figure who continues to be an international household name two centuries after her birth. Nightingale in 200 Objects, People & Places runs from March 8, 2020 to March 7, 2021 at the Florence Nightingale Museum in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital.

The exhibition will present a fully-rounded picture of a visionary reformer, tireless campaigner and inspirational world leader in her field.

It will explore Florence’s heroic role during the Crimean War, which saw her worshipped by suffering soldiers and propelled to fame. But the exhibition will also shine a light on the next 30 years of her life, during which she revolutionised nursing with boundless determination, all while suffering physical illness and depression.

The exhibition will draw on the museum’s collections, along with loans from national and private collections to present 200 items that explore the reasons for Florence Nightingale’s international fame and enduring influence.

Among the key exhibits: The ‘lamp’ (actually a Turkish lantern) carried by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War

  • Florence Nightingale’s medicine chest, containing glass jars of ‘domestic’ remedies.
  • Her highly-decorated writing case used in the writing of 14,000 letters and 200 publications
  • The door knocker from her Mayfair home – when she was ill, Florence requested that people visit her, often in order that she could harangue them.
  • Family album belonging to Florence’s cousin, Henry Nicholson, containing unseen sketches of Florence and the Nightingale family
  • The first nursing uniform, featuring the Scutari Sash designed by Florence
  • An audio recording of Florence Nightingale’s voice
  • Florence’s copy of Oliver Twist. Charles Dickens was a friend.

The exhibition is part of a year-long celebration. It will include a lamp-lit wreath-laying at the Florence Nightingale statue in Waterloo Place, a celebratory Evensong service at St Paul’s Cathedral and new programmes of schools events and family activities at the museum.

Florence Nightingale Museum holds the world’s leading collection of material related to Florence. It sits within the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, whose design was hugely influenced by Florence Nightingale and which opened the first Nightingale School for training nurses in her honour in 1860.

Museum director David Green said, “Our exhibition is designed to surprise people
whose knowledge of Florence Nightingale doesn’t go much beyond the
‘Lady with the Lamp’.”


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