The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florence Nightingale’s tireless work brought respect to nursing

National Nurses Week celebrates the professionals who have followed in Nightingale’s footsteps.

Nursing students train with a mannequin at Georgetown University in Washington in 1964. Today there are more than 5 million nurses in the United States. National Nurses Week and International Nurses Day, both in May, honor those who have chosen the profession. (Library of Congress)
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There are more than 5 million nurses in the United States. They work at hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, patients’ homes, special-care facilities, prisons and military bases.

If you go to sleepaway camp, there’s probably a nurse on staff. Your school is likely to have one, too. Nurses make up the largest share of health-care professionals in the United States and around the world.

May 12 is International Nurses Day, an annual celebration of how nurses improve our lives. This date was chosen because it’s the anniversary of the birth in 1820 of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. In the United States, May 12 is also the last day of National Nurses Week, a time to remember — and thank — these professionals for all they do.

Nursing wasn’t always a respected occupation. In the mid-1800s, when Nightingale was growing up, wealthy British families like hers wanted just one “job” for their daughters: to marry and raise a family.

Educated at home, Nightingale excelled in math and languages. She could read and write six languages at an early age. In her teens she began feeling “calls from God” to lessen human suffering, she said. She thought that becoming a nurse was the best way to do this.

Her parents said no, that nursing was not proper for a young woman of her social class. But she persisted. When she was age 30, she traveled to Germany for nurses training. By 1853 she was head of a hospital in London, England, for governesses, women who couldn’t afford private care but would not consider going to a public facility.

Nightingale’s worldwide fame as a nurse resulted from the Crimean War (1853-1856), during which Russia fought the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France.

When the British people learned of the terrible conditions in their army hospitals — where many more soldiers died of infection than war wounds — they demanded change. Nightingale was asked to lead a group of 38 nurses to the military field hospital at Scutari (in present-day Istanbul, Turkey).

The facility was crowded and filthy. There was little medicine and no soap, clean linens or drinking water. Rats ran under the beds. Lice and fleas were everywhere.

Some of the men running the hospital considered Nightingale unladylike and a nuisance. But she kept pushing as her nurses worked to clean up the place and care for patients. Healthy food, clean clothing, medicines and other supplies were provided. A special team arrived from Britain to flush out the sewers and improve airflow indoors. The hospital’s death rate dropped substantially.

Nightingale’s workday never ended. At night she walked the wards comforting the wounded, sometimes writing letters to home for them. They called her “the Lady with the Lamp” and “the Angel of Crimea.”

She did this despite having become very ill shortly after arriving at the hospital in 1855. There was no effective treatment for her disease, probably caused by drinking contaminated milk, and it afflicted her for decades.

Still, she kept working. She created a statistics diagram showing how better hygiene in hospitals saves lives. She established the world’s first professional nursing school, now part of King’s College London. The United States government consulted her about its field hospitals in the Civil War, and officials in India sought her advice about public health. Her books on hospitals and nursing are still read by health-care workers today, 112 years after her death.

Thanks to Nightingale, the public came to regard nursing as an important and honorable profession, something the coronavirus pandemic has reemphasized. And it’s not just a job for women: 10 percent of today’s nurses are men, according to the World Health Organization. That, too, is something to celebrate on International Nurses Day.

Wanted: More Nurses

There are four times as many nurses in the United States as there are doctors. Based on their training, they have various duties and titles, including registered nurse (RN), nurse practitioner (NP), licensed practical nurse (LPN) and school nurse.

Although the total — more than 5 million — sounds like a lot, there is a worrisome shortage of nurses in this country and elsewhere. An aging population means more people needing more care. At the same time, more than one-fifth of U.S. nurses plan to retire in the next five years.

The pandemic has blurred predictions of how many nurses will be needed going forward. Some who left their jobs due to burnout or for other reasons may return, but others will not.

In 2020, the U.S. government forecast that there would be 194,500 job openings for RNs every year through 2030. Worldwide, there is a shortage of 5.9 million nurses. Nursing programs want to close the gap, but many have lost educators and funding. Without enough resources, the schools have had to turn qualified students away.

Some states want to change the requirements to attract more people to the nursing profession and keep those already there.