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Florence Nightingale – Ten Girls Who Made History

Irene Howat

This extract is from Ten Girls Who Made History. 

Florence and her sister were not sorry to be parted. They were so very different. Parthe (whose full name was Parthenope) loved parties and frilly dresses. Flo, as Florence was known, liked books and studying. Both thought the other was boring.

‘I love staying with you,’ Flo told her cousin Hilary. ‘We do such exciting things!’

Hilary smiled cheekily.

‘Would you like to come visiting today?’

Thinking that meant dressing up and sitting in parlours, Flo screwed up her face.

‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘I get that at home.’

Her cousin giggled. ‘Not that kind of visiting,’ Hilary explained. ‘My governess is visiting the poor today, and I sometimes go with her. Do you want to come too?’

Flo, who was eight years old, knew about visiting the poor. Sometimes she went with her mother delivering food to the hungry.

‘Yes, I’ll come,’ she said. ‘I think I’d like that.’

‘What a wonderful afternoon I’ve had,’ Flo wrote in her diary before going to bed.

‘Miss Johnson took us to a number of cottages where very poor people live. She actually goes INSIDE the cottages. They were so dark! Miss Johnson was very nice to the people, treating them like friends. And when we went into one cottage where there was a sick baby, she picked up the child and hugged him. Then she examined the poor little thing and said she’d bring medicine to help his chesty cough. I stroked the baby, and he stopped crying. It felt wonderful to be really helping someone.’

Closing her diary carefully, Flo lay back on her pillows and thought over the day. She imagined herself as a grown–up, going from cottage to cottage with a basket of fruit and helping the sick people she visited. Before she knew it, she had fallen asleep and begun dreaming, then it was morning and time to get up!


A few months later, in early 1829, dreadful news came to the Nightingale home. One of their little cousins had died. Both girls had been very fond of him. After the period of mourning was over, Parthe and Flo’s governess, Miss Christie, decided that they needed something new to focus their energies on, something practical, fulfilling and creative.

‘I have a new project for you,’ their governess said. ‘I want you to do something to help the poor village people.’

‘Cook will give us food to take to them,’ announced Parthe. ‘And the gardener can dig up some vegetables.’

‘No,’ Miss Christie said, ‘I want you to think of ways of earning money so that you can do something for them yourselves.’

‘Earning money?’ quizzed Parthe, who knew she would never have to earn money in all her life. Her family was quite rich enough to keep her comfortably.

‘I think that’s a good idea,’ Flo said. ‘I’ll embroider handkerchiefs and I could tidy Mum’s threads for her. You could do some drawings to sell to our relatives,’ she told her sister. ‘You’re brilliant at drawing.’

Over the weeks that followed, Parthe and Flo did all sorts of things and raised enough money to give the village children a party, complete with food and gifts to take home.

‘I LOVE helping people,’ Flo wrote in her diary. ‘And I love keeping notes of everything I do and see. Perhaps one day I’ll write a book.’


In 1831, when Flo was eleven years old, Miss Christie spoke to her very quietly. By the time Miss Christie had finished speaking, tears were rolling down Flo’s cheeks.

‘You’re leaving?’ she said softly. ‘You’re leaving us to get married?’

‘Yes,’ the young woman said. ‘But we will write and we will pray for each other.’

Flo believed both these things would happen, but she knew that when Miss Christie left, her life would change. Nothing would ever be the same again. If a tear smudged the ink in her diary that night, it was only one of the many that fell. But many more tears were shed the following year when her governess died in childbirth.

Praying was as much part of Flo’s life as writing her diary, but in the weeks that followed her dear friend’s death, many of Flo’s prayers were in the form of questions.

‘Why did she die, Lord? Why could she and the baby not both have lived?’

Flo’s grandmother came to stay some weeks later, and helping to look after the old lady helped the girl to get over her grief. In fact, helping people always helped Flo too. It gave her a good feeling.


‘What will I do with my life?’ Flo often asked herself. ‘I can’t just spend my time going to dinner parties and balls. And I’m not going to prance about in fancy gowns every day, that’s for sure!’ Night after night she prayed that God would make her useful. Then, on 7th February 1837, the Lord answered her prayers. The seventeen–year–old knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had called her into his service. She didn’t know what God would ask her to do, but she knew that something useful would come out of her life.


‘You’ll enjoy seeing where you were born,’ Flo’s father told her. ‘In our grand trip round Europe we’ll visit Florence, the city that gave you your name.’

Flo didn’t particularly want to spend ages touring Europe, but that’s what the family did. They took so much with them that her father’s coach needed six horses to pull it! The Nightingales, servants and all, left home in September that year and didn’t return for nineteen months! The most important event in the family diary after that was the day that Parthenope and Florence met the new, young Queen Victoria.


Although Florence continued to live in high society, her interests lay elsewhere. ‘Oliver Twist’ had just been published, and this opened her eyes to the poverty in London. Her aunt was very involved in campaigning against slavery. Florence even started reading government reports on health, the employment of children and housing the poor! In fact, she was developing what is called a social conscience. That means that she was becoming aware of problems that really existed, and felt she wanted to help.


When she was twenty–four, an American doctor and his wife visited the Nightingale home. He worked with deaf and blind people, but he also talked about work he wanted to do with those who were sick in body or mind. Florence could hardly wait to talk to him.

‘Do you think a young English woman like me could work in a hospital?’ she asked at the first opportunity.

The doctor looked at Florence.

‘It would certainly be most unusual for someone from your kind of family to do work like that,’ he said. ‘But if you think that’s what you should be doing, go for it. And God will go with you.’

The young woman’s heart pounded with excitement. From then on, her mind was made up. God had called her into his service, and she would find a way of serving him.


It was not until 1853 that Florence found what she was wanting. That was when she became manager of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen, and she only got the job because she had spent much of the previous few years nursing one or other aged or ill relative as well as spending a short time in a hospital in Germany.

‘This is what I was made to do,’ Flo told her cousin. ‘This is my service to God.’

‘What does the job involve?’ her cousin asked.

Florence thought back over her first few months with the Institute.

‘It has involved travelling to Paris to research nursing there. And here in London I’ve assisted in operations and cared for patients after their surgery. I’ve nursed women with tuberculosis and I’ve tried my best to comfort those suffering from stress.’

‘Is that all?’ her cousin laughed jokingly.

Florence thought she was being serious. ‘No,’ she said, ‘that’s not quite all. I’ve also ordered the furniture for the Institute, put up shelves to hold things, kept the accounts and looked after the stores.’

Having looked for something useful to do, Florence Nightingale was now incredibly busy … and loving it.


In March 1854, Britain and France declared war on Russia. The Crimean War had begun. Six months later, a worrying report was published.

‘Insufficient plans have been made for the care of the wounded. Not only are there not enough surgeons … not only are there no dressers and nurses … there are not even linens to make bandages.’

Just five days later, Florence Nightingale wrote to her cousin, ‘A small private expedition of nurses has been organised for Scutari, and I have been asked to command it. I believe we may be of use.’


Florence and her thirty–seven nurses arrived just after a battle and they could hardly believe what met them. As usual, she took very detailed notes.

‘I’ve been given five damp rooms for my nurses. The dead body of a Russian general is in one of them, and rats are in all five. The men are fed with half–cooked meat soup and no vegetables at all. There are so many of them that the bath rota means each is bathed once every eighty days! Not only that, the same sponge is used to wash everyone.’

Utterly shocked, Florence set out to organise her nurses into some kind of useful order. Although the doctors were not too keen to have nurses helping them, Florence made sure they got down to work.

‘Go to the market and buy as many vegetables as you can carry,’ she told some of them.

‘Set up the portable stoves we brought with us,’ she instructed others, ‘and get ready to cook some decent food for these poor men.’

‘Wash these bandages and rip more linen into strips,’ she said to some who were still looking for jobs. ‘Then wash anything in sight. Everything here is disgusting!’


The new nurses were hardly settled in when news came of terrible losses at the Battle of Balaclava. Soon the number of injured doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 men.

Florence wrote to a friend in London, describing the scene.

‘We now have four miles of beds, and not eighteen inches apart. … As I did my night rounds among the wounded, there was not one murmur, not one groan. These poor fellows bear pain with superhuman heroism.’ Then, on the subject of cleanliness, she added, ‘We have no basins, not a bit of soap, not a broom. I have ordered 300 scrubbing brushes!’


Florence Nightingale was far from timid. When she saw something needed done, she went all out to make sure it was done.

‘Every patient should have his own bed,’ she demanded, ‘and they should all have exactly the right food for their condition.’

When objections were raised about how to do that, she had her answer ready.

‘Ward masters will have to be appointed. They will see to the running of their own wards and make sure they are kept clean.’

 ‘But… but…’ the official tried to argue. However, he didn’t stand a chance. Florence continued, ‘The hospital needs a governor with four men under him. One will organise the day–to–day running of the hospital, the second will arrange the food, the third will look after the furniture and clothing, and the fourth will be in charge of the doctors.’

The official was lost for words. Nurse Nightingale knew how to get things done!


Despite all that Florence and her nurses did, 3,000 soldiers died in battle, and a further 20,000 died of their injuries. That gave her much to think about, and Nurse Nightingale thought hard. Because of the detailed notes she always kept, she was full of ideas for improving army medical services. One of them was to open an Army Medical School, and she pushed and nagged until that happened. It took its first batch of students in 1860.


Soon after returning from the war, Florence became an invalid herself and spent most of her time in bed. That didn’t stop her planning a better nursing service. Nor did it prevent her writing things down in one of her hundreds of notebooks.

‘The first thing a nurse should think about is her patients,’ she wrote. ‘And the second is their need of fresh air. They should be able to see out the window, to hear friendly voices, to have peace from unfamiliar noises.’

‘What else would you suggest?’ a colleague who was visiting her asked, after reading her notes.

Florence pulled herself up in bed.

‘Patients should have flowers round about them, food when they are able to take it, comfortable pillows supporting them. Hospitals should be kept as clean as humanly possible … and patients’ skin should be washed and dried carefully to prevent sores.’

‘I think you should have a rest,’ the visitor said.

Florence’s eyes were closed, but she continued speaking.

‘Nurses should wash their hands often. They should learn to watch every little detail…’


‘She never stops,’ the visitor said, as she left Florence’s room.

‘We should thank God for that,’ the woman with her commented. ‘Florence Nightingale’s non–stop work has changed nursing amazingly, especially the nursing of soldiers.’

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