The 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing, falls on Tuesday, May 12. Her relevance today cannot be understated, given the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet the events leading up to the anniversary can only be called ironic.
Nightingale (1820-1910), who had considerable mathematical skills, is credited with being the first healthcare professional to use data to show that infection control improves health outcomes. Through her career she stressed a practice that is relevant as ever today — handwashing.
The irony is that the pandemic has not only ruined her anniversary but is also threatening part of her legacy.
The Florence Nightingale Museum in London, which no longer gets the visits that sustain it, has announced it is facing a battle for survival and launched fundraising schemes to save itself.
In 1840, Nightingale begged her parents to let her study mathematics instead of “worsted work and practising quadrilles”, but her mother did not approve of this idea (Archive of Mathematical History, University of St Andrews). Eventually, they did grant her permission to be tutored in the subject. Then in 1851, she resisted her parents and studied nursing, which was not considered a respectable profession in those days.
Her signature effort came during the Crimean War (1854-56), when she answered a government call for nurses and took a posting as ‘Superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the English General Hospitals in Turkey’. This is where she earned the name ‘Lady with the Lamp’, for walking around patients’ beds at night, holding a lamp. This also where she did her pioneering work with statistics.