Florence Nightingale: Is She Still Relevant?

Caregiverlist's team celebrated Nurses’ Week recently, a week recognizing the field of nursing which culminated in the birthday of Florence Nightingale.

Every nurse and Certified Nursing Assistant (and almost everyone else in the world) has heard of Florence Nightingale, who established the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing & Midwifery at Kings College London, the first official nurses’ training program, in 1860. The oldest professional nursing school in the UK, it is still in operation today. She also acted as a consultant for the John Hopkins School of Nursing, one of the first nursing institutions in the United States, in 1889.

In honor of Ms. Nightingale and nurses everywhere, I decided to take a look at Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it is Not, by Florence Nightingale — the first nursing handbook, published in 1898 and made available free online at Project Gutenberg as an ebook and for Kindle.

At a time when two in every five children in London died before their fifth birthday and the average life-expectancy was 47 years, the book was of vital importance and was the first of its kind ever written on the fundamentals of caring for the ill. It elevated the views on nurses and nursing.

If, then, every woman must at some time or other of her life, become a nurse, i.e., have charge of somebody's health, how immense and how valuable would be the produce of her united experience if every woman would think how to nurse.

I do not pretend to teach her how, I ask her to teach herself, and for this purpose I venture to give her some hints.

The table of contents shows the following topics for advice and recommendations:

  • ventilation and warming
  • 
health of houses
  • 
petty management (how things are done by others when you must be away)
  • 
noise

  • variety (environment)

  • taking food
  • 
what food?

  • bed and bedding
  • 
light

  • cleanliness of rooms and walls
  • 
cleanliness (personal)
  • 
chattering hopes and advices (the false assurances and recommendations of family and friends to the sick)

  • observation of the sick


Notes on Nursing proposed that “Of the sufferings of disease, disease not always the cause.” Pure air, pure water, light and ventilation, cleanliness and fresh bedding, all stand the test of time in their assistance with patient care and recovery. She was also one of the first to write about the power of positive thinking.

More interesting to me was the advice indicative of the Victorian age — and that no one before Ms. Nightingale had the temerity to suggest that environmental changes would affect the health and well-being of those in need of care.

She championed the call to abolish slop pails and chamber utensils without lids, sounded the alarm regarding the burning of the crinolines (referring to the large, flammable underskirts all women wore in the name of decency, which would often catch fire,) and the refusal to believe that the extent of a patient’s illness was “in God’s hands.”

Her holistic nursing approach, of course, extended to food served to the sick. Here again, some truths are universal, some selections read like curiosities. Food like beef tea (clear soup?), homemade bread — good. Eggs whipped with wine? Not so much.

Because of its historical importance and ready availability, I urge you to read it yourself. Then let us know in the comments: Is this best considered an interesting read, or do you feel, as Joan Quixley, then head of the Nightingale School of Nursing wrote in her introduction to the 1974 edition, "the book astonishes one with its relevance to modern attitudes and skills in nursing, whether this be practised at home by the 'ordinary woman', in hospital or in the community. The social, economic and professional differences of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in no way hinder the young student or pupil from developing, if he or she is motivated to do so, its unchanged fundamentals by way of intelligent thought and practice."?

One thing is true, then as now — caregiving is a noble calling. If you are considering it as a career choice, or if you are looking to increase your skillset, visit our Caregiver Career Center to get your caregiver certification training, build a resume, or apply for a caregiver job.

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