Deeply Rooted: Nightingale’s Childhood

By | 2022-02-11T16:11:17-05:00 June 28th, 2010|0 Comments

When Florence Nightingale was growing up in early 19th-century England, no one aspired to be a nurse, especially not anyone who was a member of the aristocracy. But within her life of privilege, the seeds of modern nursing were sown.

Family Life

The future “Lady with the Lamp” was born in Florence, Italy, on May 12, 1820; her wealthy parents, William and Fanny, were on an extended holiday on the Continent at the time. Florence’s only sibling, her sister Parthenope, had been born the previous year in a Greek settlement near Naples.

The girls grew up in England and lived a Victorian aristocratic life, spending time at Embley Park, a large estate near Romsey, Hampshire, as well as at Lea Hurst in Derbyshire. Despite their similar upbringing, the sisters were very different, says Deva-Marie Beck, RN, PhD, international co-director of the Nightingale Initiative for Global Health in Ottawa, Canada.

“Florence was a bookworm — an introvert,” Beck says. “She liked to be sitting reading a book. Her sister and her mother were more similar [to each other]. They loved to chat and socialize and carry on about what we would call ‘soap opera stuff.’ The neighborhood gossip was what they liked.”

Florence took to books and learning “like a duck to water. Her sister was also given that opportunity but wasn’t nearly the scholar,” Beck says. “Her sister was an artist and musician, someone who loved to do drawings and needlepoint. Many of the early drawings of the Nightingale family were her sister’s.”

The idyllic surroundings of the family’s estates provided the studious, introspective Florence with ample opportunities to learn, ponder and thrive, says Joan M. Pryor McCann, RN, PhD, CNS, CNL, a professor of nursing at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. For the past 20 years, Pryor McCann, who is working on a book about Nightingale, has been leading groups of nurses and nursing students on trips to England to visit the places in which Nightingale lived and those she frequented.

“When I was walking around Lea Hurst — you can’t do that any longer — there was a certain sort of serenity in those areas,” Pryor McCann says. “Just the layout, the grounds. Nightingale had a lot of time to muse, ruminate. That was a whole different time. She had a lot of time to think about ideas.”

Life of Privilege, Life of Opportunity

Embley Park, family home of the Nightingales, where young Florence lived with her family.

Nightingale not only had time to formulate her own ideas, but her family’s wealth and status in society meant she was exposed to plenty of new ideas, as well. Her parents threw lavish parties, where she could mingle with the brightest minds.

Nightingale loved learning under her father’s guidance in the library at Embley Park. His study, where he read and worked, was secreted away behind a fake bookcase in the library, complete with faux books sporting witty titles. “Apparently, Nightingale’s father had quite a wry sense of humor,” Pryor McCann says.

Mr. Nightingale was well-educated and shared his Cambridge education with his daughters. Because the Nightingales had no sons and both parents came from forward-thinking Unitarian backgrounds, their girls received an education that was unique for their gender at the time.

Nightingale, ever curious, thrived under her father’s tutelage and her own studies. “She was educated as well as any boy. And since she was smarter than many boys, she took full advantage of it,” says Gillian Gill, author of “Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale.”

The future founder of modern nursing was a particularly inquisitive, analytic child. While her sister drew pictures or sat in the parlor discussing the latest societal gossip with their mother, Nightingale recorded the proper dosages of various medications in a small notebook.

“From an early age, she started putting things down in little columns. She was noting the results of what happens,” Gill says. “This was as a child.”

Adept at math, fluent in several languages and well-versed in the classics, young Nightingale also had access to some of the most brilliant thinkers of the time. Her father, Gill says, “knew a large number of scientists, political thinkers and what we would now call statisticians and social welfare reformists. All these people were introduced to his daughter. As a young girl, she corresponded with some of them, like (Adolphe) Quetelet, who is considered to be the founder of statistics.”

Despite her liberal upbringing, Nightingale’s parents expected these intellectual pursuits to come to a close when she set her mind to marriage “and then became the model mother for progressive boys,” Gill says. “That’s what she refused to do.”

Nightingale’s choice didn’t endear her to her mother. Fanny Nightingale was more interested in Florence’s social education — becoming at ease in high society while scouting for a suitable husband. Her mother was motivated, at least in part, by a sense of self-preservation. Women could not inherit property at the time, so if her husband died, his estate would pass to his nephew. His wife and daughters, although not penniless, would have found themselves at a considerably lower economic and social level. “So there was a big onus on Nightingale to marry because she was the prettier and more attractive of the two [daughters],” Gill says.

Vision of Nursing

Marriage did not interest Nightingale, but nursing did. From a young age, Florence seemed to have a noble vision of nursing, though few others in England shared that view at the time.

When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, the country also broke ties with religious orders. Catholic nuns and brothers generally had served as the caregivers in hospitals throughout Europe. This was not the case in Henry VIII’s England, Pryor McCann says. Hospitals on the Continent boasted higher levels of care, while the deplorable conditions of English wards were like a page out of a Charles Dickens novel for hapless patients.

“[Patients] would have a draught of whiskey, and they’d be chained to the beds,” Pryor McCann says.

Only the destitute went to English hospitals, and few of those patients left alive. Generally, the only people who would agree to work in hospitals were those who were desperate for money — and decidedly uninterested in caring for patients.

“The ‘nurses’ were the criminals. They were the drunks. Nobody really wanted anybody to be a nurse,” Pryor McCann says.

Most English citizens relied on the women in their own families, rather than strangers at a public hospital, to care for them during illness.

“They all looked after each other in the context of extended family support. In the cities and impoverished areas, that turned out to be nobody,” Beck says, except for women relegated to the lowest rungs of society. “That’s how the notion that nursing was for prostitutes came about. That’s what Nightingale’s mother thought and why her mother thought that [nursing] was not such a good idea for her daughter.”
But the empathetic young girl who was rarely sick herself as a child displayed a gift for healing from a young age.

“Instead of running and playing, [Nightingale] would visit people to make sure they were OK,” Beck says. “There is a lovely picture painted of her on a pony — maybe by her sister. Florence would make her rounds on horseback to make sure people were OK.”

If those she visited were ill, Nightingale would do her best to help them recover. “I would say she was doing that by age 8 or 9,” Beck says.

Young Nightingale also took special care of animals. Gill recalls a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, about a sheepdog with a broken leg that Florence nursed to health.

“She insisted on taking care of the dog. It had to have its leg amputated, but she took such good care of the wound that the dog recovered,” Gill says. “In fact, he was able to run around on three legs and have a productive life. There is some suggestion what Nightingale was doing was instinctual — administering clean, antiseptic medicine. I don’t know how much you can trust that [story], but I found it interesting. For certain we know she treated this dog. She refused to let it die.”

Nightingale also showed a precocious ability to look after sick people.

“She did this most notably when she was credited as a young teenager with saving a male relative, who would inherit her father’s estate when her father died. This little boy was the family treasure. He was the only male in the family, so his life was extremely precious. Somehow it was Florence’s dedication to this child” that pulled him through his childhood illnesses, Gill says. “It was this that won the family over, that made the family look at Florence in a whole new way as someone who was ready to put everything aside, including her own personal safety, in the service of members of her family.”

It would be years before Nightingale would expand her role as caregiver and eventually transform nursing on a large scale — years before she would write her famous work, “Notes on Nursing.” Still, says Gill, “From childhood, she had a high vision of what nursing was at a time when no one else much had it. Her view was, almost intuitively, that by care and attention and nursing, you can do a lot. This was the beacon she carried through life.”


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