15 Heroic Facts About Florence Nightingale

A photo of Florence Nightingale, circa 1845.
A photo of Florence Nightingale, circa 1845.
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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.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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