15 Heroic Facts About Florence Nightingale

A photo of Florence Nightingale, circa 1845.
A photo of Florence Nightingale, circa 1845.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Venerated as the "founder of modern nursing," Florence Nightingale—who was born in Florence, Italy on May 12, 1820—left a revolutionary mark on sanitation, healthcare, and even statistics. Today, on the anniversary of her birth, is the perfect time to celebrate her extraordinary life—one that saved countless others.

1. Florence Nightingale was fluent in English, French, German, and Italian.

Nightingale also had a decent grasp of both Latin and classical Greek. Her father, a wealthy Cambridge grad, personally oversaw young Florence’s education. Through him, she learned the basics of everything from mathematics to philosophy to Shakespearean literature.

2. She chose to pursue nursing at a young age, despite her parents' objections.

Nursing didn't garner much respect back in 1837. Generally, it was associated with low social status and rampant alcoholism. Lousy wages also forced many women who entered the field to make ends meet by engaging in a bit of prostitution on the side. So, when 16-year-old Nightingale announced that she felt "called" to become a nurse, her parents weren’t thrilled. But their determined daughter’s mind was made up and, in 1850, she finally started learning the craft. Three years later, Nightingale became the superintendent of a London-based women’s hospital.

3. Nightingale refused to get married.


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She turned down multiple proposals, including one made by a cousin named Henry Nicholson.

4. Nightingale had 38 nurses working under her during the Crimean War.

This 1850s conflict, in which Britain and France clashed with Russia over the Slavic empire’s invasion of Turkish territory, turned Nightingale into a Victorian celebrity.

Nightingale was friends with UK war secretary Sidney Herbert, and he gave her permission to round up 38 volunteers and treat the wounded at a field hospital in Scutari. Cleanliness wasn’t the facility’s strong suit: Feces littered the floors, rats scampered through the hallways, and clean linens were a rare commodity; 42.7 percent of admitted patients died in February 1855. Clearly, Nightingale deduced, there was a link between poor sanitation and that high mortality rate. She soon implemented strict hygiene rules that whittled the number down to 2 percent by June.

5. Nightingale's diligence inspired a glowing nickname.

"She is a ‘ministering angel’ without any exaggeration in these hospitals," the London Times wrote of Nightingale in 1855. As their article added, she could often be "observed alone," checking up on the wounded "with a little lamp in her hand." Just like that, Nightingale won international acclaim as the benevolent "Lady with the Lamp."

6. She frequently wrote letters home on behalf of dying or dead soldiers.

Nightingale sometimes took it upon herself to be the bearer of bad news, as she did in this snippet from a delicately-worded message sent in 1856: "It is with very sincere sorrow that I am obliged to confirm the fears of the father of the Late Howell Evans about his poor son … I have never in my life had so painful & unsatisfactory a letter to write."

7. She helped popularize the pie chart.

The first true pie chart was drawn in 1801, 19 years before Nightingale was born. Still, historians recognize the nurse as an early adopter and promoter of the statistical tool. Her 1858 report, "Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army," includes the graph pictured above. Every slice represents a given month’s casualties, with the colors red, blue, and black designating death via "wounds," "preventable disease," and "other causes," respectively.

8. Queen Victoria was a big fan.

Before things wrapped up in Crimea, Her Majesty rewarded Nightingale’s service by sending her a special brooch as a thank you. "It will be a very great satisfaction to me," the Queen declared, "when you return at last to these shores, to make the acquaintance of one who has set so bright an example to our sex." She got her wish when the pair met face-to-face for the first time in 1856; they remained in contact for decades thereafter.

9. Nightingale worked with the British government to enact far-reaching sanitation laws.

The Lady with the Lamp used her influence to bring about significant changes at home. Between 1871 and 1875—long after the war was over—she successfully pushed for legislation that would force extant buildings into connecting with main drainage. The results speak for themselves: By 1935, Britain’s national life expectancy had increased by 20 years.

10. Her 1859 book, Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not, became one of the profession's most important texts.

Pointers like "Every nurse ought to be careful to wash her hands very frequently during the day" and "every nurse should be … capable of being a 'confidential' nurse" are just as invaluable today as they were 160 years ago.

11. During the American Civil War, both sides benefited from Nightingale's advice.

Both the Union and the Confederacy were obsessed with proper ventilation of their hospitals, which were specially built in accordance with her theories. Meanwhile, she contacted D.C.-based Union leaders directly with helpful soldier mortality statistics.

12. She educated "America's first trained nurse."

Linda Richards (1841-1930) owns this distinction, which she acquired by attending London’s Nightingale School of Nursing (founded in 1860 at St. Thomas’ Hospital). Nightingale herself helped personally train Richards, whose focus later shifted toward psychiatry and working with mental health professionals.

13. She became the first woman to be inducted into the Order of Merit.


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Established in 1902, this high British honor was created by King Edward VII to recognize individuals who “have rendered exceptionally meritorious services ... towards the advancement of the Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science.” Nightingale earn the accolade in 1907; no other woman would be awarded the honor again until biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin followed suit in 1965.

14. Her birthday is celebrated around the world as "International Nurses Day."

The annual tradition of recognizing nurses for their hard work and contributions on May 12 has been going strong since 1974.

15. YOU CAN HEAR NIGHTINGALE'S VOICE ON YOUTUBE.

On July 30, 1890, Nightingale met with one of Thomas Edison’s British representatives and created this brief recording. The proceeds went to assist Crimean War veterans, specifically those who’d fought in the disastrous Battle of Balaclava. Her captured remarks are as follows:

"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."

This article has been updated for 2019.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tried Solving a Real Mystery

An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
Sidney Paget, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On September 1, 1907, the New York Times wrote:

It looks as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will eventually come to be considered an even greater detective than he made out Sherlock Holmes to be.

Doyle had found himself embroiled in a case that captured worldwide media attention for the fact that he, and not his famous sleuth, was trying to solve it. In 1906, a man named George Edalji was freed from prison after being sentenced for the crime of animal cruelty. He stood accused of injuring horses and cattle in Great Wyrley, and also of writing letters threatening to do the same to women. Upon his release, he wrote to Doyle asking for the celebrated author’s help in proving his innocence.

Doyle, who typically turned down such requests, was grieving over his wife's death and was eager for a distraction. He suspected Edalji’s Indian heritage was partly to blame for his conviction, as the Staffordshire police were believed to be racially discriminatory and the physical evidence was flimsy. (Another horse had even been attacked while Edalji was in prison.)

Doyle’s theory of the man’s innocence was largely dependent on his eyesight. In a remarkably Holmes-esque observation during their first meeting, Doyle noted Edalji held his newspaper close to his face. Since the animal mutilations had taken place at night and the criminal would have had to navigate a series of obstacles, he figured Edalji’s vision was too poor for the accusations to make sense.

Once Doyle took up his cause, Edalji became a symbol for injustice. Letters poured in, both to Doyle and to the Daily Telegraph, who had published his argument of Edalji’s innocence. The Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote to say, “I could not doubt that at all events Edalji had been convicted without any evidence worthy of the name.”

Not everyone was convinced. The chief constable, George Anson, did not appreciate Doyle inserting himself into what police considered a closed case. Doyle was not simply posturing as an amateur sleuth: he was a pest, bombarding Anson almost daily with letters questioning their investigation, offering alternative theories, and using his celebrity to keep the case in the newspapers. Since Edalji had already been freed, his intention was to get some kind of financial compensation for the wrongful conviction. Anson responded unkindly, dismissing Doyle’s ideas and delivering sharp retorts.

Doyle was a “contemptible brute,” Anson remarked.

But the author would not be dissuaded, even when an anonymous letter had been delivered to him that was threatening in tone and insisted Edalji was the guilty party. It led him to believe the guilty party was worried enough to try and shut Doyle’s efforts down. By this point, he had isolated his suspicions to Royden Sharp, a former sailor who was said to be aggressive and once showed off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals.

Doyle’s actions, the anonymous correspondent wrote, were “to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver.”

Doyle would later learn the letter was not written by a suspect, but instead commissioned by an unlikely tormentor: Constable Anson.

The officer had become so aggrieved with Doyle that he believed forging this letter would either discourage the author or send him on a wild goose chase. In recently discovered records that went up for auction in 2015, Anson even expressed glee that he had fooled “Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite Anson’s attempts to embarrass Doyle, the author had too large a platform for the Home Office to ignore. In 1907, they pardoned Edalji of the mutilation crimes, which allowed him to return to work as a solicitor. But they refused to apologize or offer any restitution.

Doyle was frustrated by their stubborn reaction, but his efforts had one crucial impact on British law: the publicity surrounding Edalji led to the creation of an official Court of Appeals, easing the process for future defendants.

Though Doyle won over the court of public opinion, he failed to solve the case: Sharp was not seriously investigated by police. Whoever had stalked the horses, cows, and sheep during those nights in Great Wyrley has never been identified.

This story was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

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