Nurses Week 2013: 5 Things To Know About Florence Nightingale

By Philip Ross on May 6, 2013 4:46 PM EDT

nurses week 2013
Born on May 12, 1820, to an upper-class English family, Florence Nightingale is widely considered the founder of modern nursing. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Nurses Week has run every year in early May since its introduction in 1994. This week was established to recognize the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the nursing profession. This year, it starts Monday, May 6 and ends Sunday, May 12 -- the birthday of Florence Nightingale in 1820.

Often considered the founder of modern nursing, Nightingale was born in England to a wealthy upper-class family during a time when women's rights were in their nascent stage -- women rarely worked, or even had a say in whether or not they had children.

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"Women of the mid-19th century had no such choices," one historian noted. "Most lived in a state little better than slavery." Usually, a woman's best option was to marry; but even then, everything she owned, inherited or earned belonged to her husband."

Nightingale, who got her start in nursing during the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 during which she took care of wounded soldiers, reportedly rejected marriage proposals, electing instead to concentrate on her medical profession despite opposition from her family and social pressures.

Here are five things to know about Florence Nightingale, an early feminist and the founder of modern nursing:

1. Nightingale founded the first secular nursing school in the world

Before the modern concept of nursing existed, churches, particularly nuns, provided health care for the sick and aging.

Nightingale, in her book "Notes On Nursing; What It Is, and What It Is Not," wrote about nursing as a profession that was anything but professional.  

"Perhaps in no one single thing is so little common sense shown, in all ranks, as in nursing," she wrote. Nightingale described how nurses often lacked formal training, and most nursing schools were religious in nature and were just as focused on converting patients as they were tending to them.

In 1859, Nightingale established the first secular nursing school, the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas's Hospital in London. Proto Mag reports that the school accepted people of all faiths. It also focused on theory and clinical practice, and treated nursing as an academic pursuit rather than an apprenticeship.

2. Nightingale led efforts to develop better medical practices in India

Nightingale's study of sanitation in rural India led to the development of improvements in Indian medical care.

According to the Reynolds Historical Library, Nightingale spent forty years working on health issues in India. "Nightingale maintained correspondence with various British and native leaders in India over the course of several decades, with whom she exchanged advice and updates on public health matters," the library reports.

3. Nightingale helped put an end to prostitution laws that were overly harsh to women

The Contagious Diseases Act, which Parliament passed in 1864, was aimed at curbing the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases in the British armed forces.

Under the act, policemen could arrest prostitutes in ports and army towns and drag them into the police station for compulsory STD checks.

"If the women were suffering from sexually transmitted diseases they were placed in a locked hospital until cured," Spartacus Educational reports. "It was claimed that this was the best way to protect men from infected women."

Nightingale was part of a growing feminist movement in England, galvanized in part by discriminatory legislation against women like the Contagious Diseases Act. Through public rallies and public meetings, support was raised for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. The act was repealed in 1886.

4. Nightingale suffered from chronic poor health

Following her service in the Crimean War, Nightingale became practically bedridden. While serving as a nurse in the Crimean War, she contracted fever, believed by some to be brucellosis, and this is believed to be the cause of her poor health for the greater part of her life after her 30s.

According to Scientific American,  some people believe her ailments were neurotic or even intentional.

5. Nightingale was also an adept statistician  

"Oh, my poor men who endured so patiently," Nightingale wrote to a friend, regrinding the thousands of men who died during the Crimean War. "I feel I have been such a bad mother to you, to come home and leave you lying in your Crimean graves, 73 percent in eight regiments during six months from disease alone."

According to Science News, Nightingale was a "passionate statistician," and pioneered the use of statistics in advocating for changes in policy. After studying with lead statisticians of her day, Nightingale began to use statistics to argue for reforms in the health care system. From Science News:

Nightingale's best-known graphic has come to be known as a "coxcomb." It is a variation on the familiar modern pie graph, showing the number of deaths each month and their causes.

Each month is represented as a twelfth of a circle. Months with more deaths are shown with longer wedges, so that the area of each wedge represents the number of deaths in that month from wounds, disease or other causes. For months during the first part of the war, the blue wedges, representing disease, are far larger than either the red ones (for wounds) or the black ones (for other causes). For months after March 1855, when the Sanitary Commission arrived, the blue wedges start becoming dramatically smaller.

* * *

Nurses are a vital part of the American medical workforce, providing care as well as emotional support to patients and their families.

But the U.S. has, at various times, suffered from a nursing deficiency. According to Science World Report, nursing shortages stem from things like waiting lists on nursing schools, hiring freezes, economic setbacks and a growing -- and aging -- U.S. population.

In recent years, however, the number of nurses has been on the rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the employment of registered nurses in expected to grow 26 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is due in large part to advances in technology.

Nurses Week is a time to pay homage to nurses, as well as highlight some of the important developments in the world of health care.

Read more from iScience Times:

Star Wars Day: 4 Ways To Celebrate 'May The 4th Be With You' [VIDEO]

Memorial Day 2013: Why Does Memorial Day Always Fall On Final Monday In May?

Earth Day 2013: How Are People Around The World Celebrating Earth Day?

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