Fun Florence Nightingale Facts on Her 192nd Birthday

May 11th, 2012


By , BSN, RN

National Nurses Week officially ends May 12 on the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. It is known as International Nurses Day and Nightingale would have been 192-years-old.

Now Nightingale did live a long time. She died peacefully in her sleep in her home at the age of 90, following a long and distinguished career. What is particularly amazing about that is that she had a career, seeing as that was a pretty foreign phenomenon for most Victorian era ladies.

Often called the “mother of modern nursing,” or the “pioneer of modern nursing,” there is little doubt her work and research is as relevant today as when she did it. She wrote the first textbook on nursing, and opened the first official nurses’ training program, the Nightingale School for Nurses, in 1860. Interested students were trained to work in hospitals, work with the poor, and to teach.

Now, most of you reading this are likely nurses or soon-to-be nurses, or someday nurses and you’ve heard all these facts before. So, I thought it would be fun, as we get ready to light the candles once again for Nightingale, to look at some of the other aspects of her life. In other words, Florence Fun Facts.

  • From an early age Nightingale exhibited a gift for mathematics and excelled at the subject under the tutorship of her father, a known expert in statistics. Now, Nightingale didn’t invent the pie chart, as many people say (it was actually first seen in 1801 and developed by William Playfair), but it was Florence who first really showed its usefulness in 1857. Using fatality counts from the Crimean War, she developed a progressive series of statistical diagrams that revealed startling information: most soldiers did not die of their wounds, as reported, but in army hospitals, from diseases related to poor hygiene. Her insistence on sanitary conditions cut the death rate considerably. The mortality rate at the military hospital was 60% when she arrived and only 2% six months later. This was the early beginning of sterile technique and nurses’ reputations as clean freaks. In actuality, her chart wasn’t a straightforward pie chart but one known as a “polar area diagram” or occasionally the “Nightingale rose diagram,” more equivalent to a modern circular histogram. As the historian Hugh Small notes, Nightingale may not have invented statistical graphs, but “she may have been the first to use them for persuading people of the need for change.”
  • Nightingale has become a syndrome or effect. The first actual use of the phrase the Florence Nightingale Effect was in the popular movie “Back to the Future.” In it, Dr. Emmett Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) describes Marty McFly’s mother’s infatuation with him, to whom she had tended while he was unconscious after being hit by a car, as a Florence Nightingale effect, summarizing that "it happens in hospitals when nurses fall in love with their patients.”

    While not a real documented illness, it has become a common term and is often taught about in nursing and medical schools as part of ethics courses. Just like an attorney cannot breech client privilege the health care provider is not to breech that caretaker line by becoming romantically involved. Nurses must always remain cognizant of the task of being a professional health care provider and observe professional boundaries.

  • The arts have loved the story of the “Lady with the Lamp.” No fewer than six movies (screen and television) have been made about her life, including a 1985 biopic starring former Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith as the nurse heroine. She has been the subject of three major British plays and has appeared in bit parts in many other films. She has also appeared as a main character in two fictional mysteries.

  • Florence was a little bit of a crazy cat lady. It is reported that over her lifetime Nightingale owned over 60 felines. Granted, she grew up in the English countryside surrounded by many animals but she was always most fond of cats. It is documented that at one time she owned 17 at once.

    Her preference for cats first surfaced during the Crimean War. Throughout the 21 months she was in the war zone, she worked among squalor and disease to improve the horrendous conditions of the British military, which included the presence of rats, often seen moving about the barracks and sick wards. Needless to say, when a soldier presented the nurses with a small yellow cat to help control these rodents, they were delighted. Nightingale even tried to bring one of her hospital cats back to England with her at the end of the war but it did not survive the sea journey. Her favorite was a large Persian named Mr. Bismarck, “the most sensitively affectionate of cats, very gentle. … who never makes a mistake.” According to Nightingale, “cats possess more sympathy and feeling than human beings.”

Even before I was a nurse I, of course, had heard of Nightingale. As a child I read a biography of her. We learned a little about her in assorted history classes. Of course, she was presented more in depth in nursing school, in several different courses. Yet, for all this, one of my favorite quotes from Nightingale was shown to me by one of my favorite professors the first time I went to college, earning a degree in English.

This particular teacher was a bit of loner in her off time and when I was explaining to her one day how between my roommates and my friends and my school commitments and my part time job I was going a little crazy trying to get any time to myself, she showed me this:

"Women never have a half-hour in all their lives (excepting before or after anybody is up in the house) that they can call their own, without fear of offending or of hurting someone. Why do people sit up so late, or, more rarely, get up so early? Not because the day is not long enough, but because they have 'no time in the day to themselves."

That could describe many nurses I know today, who will come into work early, to just sit quietly and have a cup of coffee before the hoorah of the day kicks in. In some respects it is a description of self-care, something we nurses often need to prescribe more of.

So as Nurses Week draws to a close for 2012, remember our founder. She wasn’t just the “lady with the lamp” or “the pioneer of modern nursing,” she was a single, intelligent, busy woman, who just like today’s nurse, was sometimes seeking just a few minutes of quiet time.

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