By the time she was twenty-one, well-to-do Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was sure that God wished her to exchange European society life for nursing. Her mother begged her to think again: her intellectual gifts and social position promised so much more. And in a way she was right.
AFTER reading distressing newspaper accounts of servicemen wounded in the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale, who at that time ran a women’s clinic in London, confided her frustrations to Sidney Herbert at the War Office.*
Herbert enthusiastically despatched Florence and thirty-eight nurses trained at her clinic to Constantinople. She arrived, days after the fateful charge of the Light Brigade on 25th October 1854, to find the hospital overwhelmed.
Well-travelled (she was born in Italy), well-connected and fluent in several languages, Florence was a godsend. She was attractive, her habitually sober expression breaking into an enchanting smile; but it was not a pretty face that the victims of gunshot or typhus needed.
They needed someone to bring order, cleanliness and unblocked sewers to the choking, infected chaos.
Florence skilfully worked the press and her society contacts, lobbying the government into sending sanitation engineers and even prefabricated hospital buildings, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, out to the Dardanelles, drastically reducing the death-toll among the wounded.
* The Crimean War lasted from 1854 to 1856, and involved an alliance of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire (based in Turkey) against the Russian Empire of the Tsars. It was bloody and difficult to justify, and the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, resigned over it. See The Crimean War here on this site.