Venerated as the "founder of modern nursing," Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy, on May 12, 1820. She left a revolutionary mark on sanitation, healthcare, and even statistics. Here are a few facts about the "lady with the lamp."
1. Florence Nightingale was fluent in English, French, German, and Italian.
Florence Nightingale also had a decent grasp of both Latin and classical Greek. Her father, a wealthy Cambridge-educated landowner, personally oversaw Florence’s education. Through him, she learned the basics of everything from mathematics to philosophy to Shakespearean literature.
2. Florence Nightingale chose to pursue nursing at a young age, despite her parents' objections.
In the 1830's, nursing was associated with low social status, paltry wages, and alcohol abuse. 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 skills. Three years later, Nightingale became the superintendent of a London-based women’s hospital.
3. Florence Nightingale refused to get married.
She turned down multiple proposals, including one made by a cousin named Henry Nicholson.
4. Florence Nightingale had 38 nurses working under her during the Crimean War.
This 1850s conflict, in which Britain and France clashed with Russia over its 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. At the makeshift facility, feces littered the floors, rats scampered through the hallways, and clean linens were a rare commodity. Over 42 percent of admitted patients died in February 1855. Nightingale implemented strict hygiene rules that whittled the mortality rate down to 2 percent by June.
5. Florence Nightingale's diligence inspired a glowing nickname.
"She is a ‘ministering angel’ without any exaggeration in these hospitals," the London Times wrote in 1855. Nightingale could often be "observed alone," the paper continued, checking up on the wounded "with a little lamp in her hand." Nightingale soon won international acclaim as the benevolent "Lady with the Lamp."
6. Florence Nightingale frequently wrote letters home on behalf of dying or dead soldiers.
Nightingale wrote to soldiers' families to tell them of their loved ones' deaths. In a letter sent in 1856, she wrote, "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. Florence Nightingale helped popularize the pie chart.
The first true pie chart was drawn in 1801, 19 years before Nightingale was born, but she became 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 of Florence Nightingale.
Before the Crimea War ended, Queen Victoria rewarded Nightingale’s service by sending her a special brooch as a thank-you token. "It will be a very great satisfaction to me," the queen wrote, "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. Florence 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 and reduce sewage in the streets. By 1935, Britain’s national life expectancy had increased by 20 years.
10. Florence Nightingale's 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 Florence Nightingale's advice.
The Union and the Confederacy were concerned with proper ventilation of their hospitals, which were specially built in accordance with her theories.
12. Florence Nightingale 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. Florence Nightingale became the first woman to be inducted into the Order of Merit.
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 Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1965.
14. Florence Nightingale's 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 Florence 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 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 2022.