In her time, Florence Nightingale was famous as the 'Lady with the Lamp' — for wounded and dying British and Turkish soldiers during the Crimean War in the 1850s. She is also most-often remembered as the philosophical founder of modern nursing and also ranks among the most brilliant of sanitary, medical and healthcare reformers in history.
Today, we recognize Nightingale’s work as both global nursing and global health advocacy. She envisioned what a healthy world might be and worked tirelessly to both articulate and realize this vision. She was a genius of both intellect and spirit and her legacy resonates today as forcefully as during her lifetime.
After returning home from her famous achievements during the Crimean War (1854–1856), Nightingale continued — for nearly four decades — to work on the global challenges of her time.
She was an expert communicator, networker and innovator — collaborating with Thomas Edison to promote his 'wax recording' machine to capture the sound of voices for the first time. From this experiment, her voice is still available to us online.
Nearly 14,000 of Nightingale's own hand-written letters are still available in collections around the world. She collaborated with journalists in her time and, herself, wrote widely-read magazine articles and 'Letters to the Editor.'
Her 'Notes on Nursing' became a best-selling book for the general public. Initially written as a 'self-help book' for a wide-readership of women caring for their families at home, the first edition of this book sold 50,000 copies within three weeks of its release. This book later became a nursing textbook, widely appreciated, still today.
Nightingale met with Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and other royalty, dignitaries, viceroys, and military officers in India and from around the world, also serving as a consultant to both the North and South during the American Civil War. She changed political will by interacting with government leaders across the British Empire and elsewhere.
She also analyzed data, wrote statistical reports and informed politicians, crafting documents that resulted in legislation. She designed hospitals and sought to improve environments — in both rural and urban areas — by developing collaborative partnerships with others who agreed with her proposed reforms.
Based on her own foundational experience with battlefield conditions, Nightingale drafted the British position papers presented to the first in a series of Geneva Conventions that directly led to establishing the International Red Cross, then the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations.
Anticipating the wider concerns we readily see today — particularly now with the comprehensive new UN Sustainable Development Goals — Nightingale called for better conditions for women, children, the poor and hungry and for better education programs for marginalized people.
She identified what we would, today call 'environmental health determinants' — clean air, water, food, houses, etc — and 'social health determinants' —poverty, women's rights, education, family relationships, employment — local to global.
With this wide range of global 'health' interests, Nightingale also anticipated today's UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Photo Credits: Top — Sculptural demonstration of Nightingale and her lamp with a Crimean War soldier from original displays at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London. Photographer: Jane Stuart, 2002. Middle — From the Ohio State University Library Historical Reflections: The Medical Heritage Center Blog. Lower — Large Florence Nightingale banner prominent beside International Red Cross founder Henri Dunant at the International Red Cross & Red Crescent Museum in Geneva Switzerland, from NIGH's archives.