The Awakening That Changed Nursing History

By | 2022-02-11T16:09:49-05:00 June 28th, 2010|0 Comments

A 30-year-old woman had joined family friends on a trip to Greece. She caught sight of a baby owl that had fallen from its nest; the animal was surrounded by a group of boys who were tormenting it. The woman rushed into the group of youngsters to rescue the owl. She took it home with her to England, where she nursed it back to health and nurtured it as a pet for years to come.

This seemingly small act of mercy came from Florence Nightingale. Those who follow Nightingale’s life and work say the incident provides a glimpse into the nature of the woman who would go on to revolutionize the profession of nursing. Nightingale’s choices, they say, were driven by the deep personal spiritual life she cultivated since she was a young girl. Her spiritual beliefs informed her decisions both in moments when nobody was watching and when she was on center stage as she engineered significant healthcare reforms.

Nightingale’s spiritual convictions, nursing historians say, were intimately connected to the path she pursued in nursing. Her connection to spirituality not only led to her initial call to care for the sick, but it also influenced the way she viewed the world and her determination to instigate changes in medicine and nursing care.

“When we begin to explore Nightingale’s life, we begin to see that she clearly understood the meaning of the connections in one’s life between spirituality and healing,” says Barbara Dossey, RN, PhD, AHN-BC, FAAN, international co-director of the Nightingale Initiative for Global Health. “She saw that spirituality was an incredible part of nursing.

Early Journey

Unitarianism served as an early influence on young Nightingale. Her parents were Unitarians who believed in the equality of men and women. Their values provided the foundation for Nightingale’s belief that, despite the prevailing standard of early 1800s England that prevented women from attending universities, she could become a lifelong learner and an agent for change.

Nightingale studied extensively under the guidance of her highly educated father. She learned five languages and advanced mathematics, but she also turned her attention to the Bible and studied it devoutly. Over time, she came to believe in a connection between the teachings of the Bible and the study of science.

“She had a rationalist approach to religion,” says the Rev. Michael Calabria, OFM, MDiv., a lecturer at St. Bonaventure University in New York, who has researched Nightingale’s spirituality. “The laws of science are what spoke to her of the divine mind.”

Adopting Christian tenets, Nightingale believed in helping those less fortunate than herself, Calabria says. Applying science to those values, she became convinced that people who live in poor conditions were more likely to suffer from disease and that creating better living environments would improve their health.

“She had strong beliefs that someone who was a Christian should reach out to others in need,” says Louise C. Selanders, RN, EdD, FAAN, professor and director for the master’s program in the College of Nursing at Michigan State University. “She believed that caring was a Christian act.”

An Illuminated Path

At age 16, Nightingale purportedly experienced a spiritual awakening — a sense that she had been called to a life of service. She translated that call into her passion for nursing, Dossey says.

Despite her parents’ egalitarian values, however, Nightingale’s desire to work as a nurse conflicted with her mother’s plans for her.

“Her mother wanted her to marry and worked hard at getting her married,” Selanders says. “But Nightingale knew she could not be married and work because married women in high society did not work. Nightingale received several marriage proposals; but because she had been directed by God to make a difference in people’s lives and could not accomplish her goals as a married woman, she refused.”

At the age of 30, Nightingale took a vow of chastity to free her to follow her calling.
Nightingale’s spiritual beliefs also empowered her to pursue a profession that fell far below her social class.

“During that time, nursing was a despicable, low-grade occupation,” says Lynn McDonald, PhD, director of the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale and professor emerita in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. “Nurses were often drunk and known for stealing patients’ food and drink. That was very frustrating for Nightingale.”

Calabria says Nightingale wanted to improve the quality of care nurses could offer, and this desire sprang from her spiritual conviction that the kingdom of God is possible on Earth.

“Nursing for her was, in essence, helping to build the kingdom of God,” Calabria says. She believed “the Earth could become closer to heaven insofar as we recognized and applied God’s law, and she wanted to take whatever human knowledge was available and apply it to nursing.”

After her years in Crimea, Nightingale lived out her calling as a nurse in an administrative capacity that had large-scale effect on nursing as a respected profession — for example, she formed the first modern secular school of nursing. A believer in tolerance, she was adamant that applicants of any faith were welcome at the school, a practice unheard of at the time.

Spiritual Bequest

For nurses like Dossey, Nightingale’s spiritual journey offers important modern-day lessons. Nightingale, she says, understood that spirituality was an integral part of the profession because nurses are asked to love, care for and give to other human beings every day.

Dossey believes Nightingale’s example challenges today’s nurses to take care of themselves spiritually in order to find the energy they need to serve patients.

“Nightingale teaches us the importance of really finding out who we are and where we come from,” Dossey says. “It can be walking, praying or meditating — essentially time when we are not connected to external things like TV. She teaches us that we need this recharge time to remember why we are doing this.”

For those who can find that spiritual connection, nursing may take on new dimensions, Selanders says.

“Nightingale set an example,” she says. “She was one of those people who had such extraordinary vision; and she showed us that if you have a vision for how something needs to be changed, the potential exists to change it.”


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