Go back to article: A statistical campaign: Florence Nightingale and Harriet Martineau’s England and her Soldiers

Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War

By the time war broke out in 1853, Nightingale was an accomplished statistician and experienced nursing administrator. Born into an upper-middle class family with liberal-humanitarian views, Nightingale was raised in privilege. She and her sister, Parthenope, were educated to university level at home by their father, who taught them mathematics, Latin and Greek. Outside of their studies, the sisters were introduced to a wide range of intellectuals by their parents, including the mathematician Charles Babbage (Magnello, 2010, p 18).

Figure 2

Black and white full figure portrait photograph of Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale. Photograph by Goodman.

An enthusiastic mathematician from an early age, Nightingale began taking private lessons with a Cambridge-trained mathematician at the age of twenty. Statistics became her primary mathematical interest; indeed, she would later call it ‘the most important science in the world’ (Magnello, 2010, p 19). Yet mathematics was not Nightingale’s only passion: she believed that nursing, the vocation for which she is now best known, was her calling from God. For Nightingale, mathematics and nursing were not mutually exclusive. Rather, the two complemented each other; even as a student she undertook private statistical studies of public health, amassing a personal dossier of data (Magnello, 2010, p 20).

Nightingale was working as Superintendent of the Hospital for Invalid Gentlewomen in Harley Street when the war began. She had plans to leave the hospital and establish a school for nurses, but all such ambitions were delayed when she was called upon to offer her services in the Crimea (Goldie, 1997, p 1). Nightingale was closely acquainted with numerous politicians, including Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of War at the outbreak of the Crimean conflict (Magnello, 2010, pp 18, 22). Keenly aware of deficiencies in the army’s medical care, Herbert asked Nightingale to be ‘Superintendent of the female nursing establishment in the English General Military Hospitals in Turkey’ (Matthew, 2009 [2004]). Nightingale agreed and was sent to the Crimea with 38 female nurses in October 1854 (Magnello, 2010, pp 18, 20).

Figure 3

Black and white block print of a scene inside Scutari military hospital

Cutting of a drawing The New Barrack-Hospital, at Scutari, c. 1854–55

Conditions in the Crimea were dire. Infectious disease was rife: soldiers were dying in their thousands of illnesses including typhus, typhoid, cholera and dysentery (Lambert, 2011 [1990], p 143). Shortly after her arrival, Nightingale wrote to her friend Dr William Bowman, describing the horrors she was facing:

But oh! you gentlemen of England, who sit at home in all the well-earned satisfaction of your successful cases, can have little idea from reading the newspapers, of the horror & misery (in a military Hospl.) of operating upon these dying and exhausted men […] I have no doubt that Providence is quite right and that the Kingdom of Hell is the best beginning for the Kingdom of Heaven, but that this is the Kingdom of Hell no one can doubt (Nightingale, 1997 [14 November 1854], p 36).

Nightingale endeavoured to reduce infection and improve efficiency, but her resources were severely limited (Magnello, 2010, p 23). In letters to Herbert, she bemoans the inexperience of her staff and calls for greater resources, requesting the most basic of supplies: plates and dishes, knives and forks, socks, matting, disinfectant, mops, towels, and scissors (Nightingale, 1997 [21 December 1854], p 52; Nightingale, 1997 [25 December 1854], p 59). Openly critical, Nightingale chastises Herbert for sending her so ill-equipped: ‘You have sacrificed the cause, so near my heart. You have sacrificed me, a matter of small importance now’ (Nightingale, 1997 [15 December 1854], p 51).

Criticism of the government’s management of the conflict grew and, in January 1855, the House of Commons passed a motion for a committee of inquiry into the state of the army (Matthew, 2009 [2004]). In February 1855, a Sanitary Commission was appointed to investigate and correct conditions in the Crimea. Led by Dr John Sutherland and Robert Rawlinson, the Commission radically improved sanitation in the hospitals (McDonald, 2010, pp 5, 24). The subsequent dip in instances of infectious disease is largely attributed to these improvements. It was this – the prevention and limitation of infectious disease – which became the focus of Nightingale’s campaigns after the war.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160504/002