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Discover the history of Florence Nightingale

Join us in celebrating the legacy of nurses in London

Tuesday 12th May marks the bicentennial of Florence Nightingale. Known as the Lady with the Lamp, her work during the Crimean War led her to become a figure known for pioneering modern nursing with a mathematical approach. You might even recognise Nightingale from the Crimean War memorial that lies at the heart of St James’s, a short walk from Piccadilly Circus. The famous figure of Nightingale, guided by her lamp, was cast in bronze in 1915 and positioned on Waterloo Place, where she can forever keep a watchful eye over the old War Office on Pall Mall. With many still looking to her as a symbol of hope, read on to discover her impact on medicine.

Who was Florence Nightingale?

Born in 1820, Florence was named after the Italian city of her birth before being brought up in Derbyshire. Described as clever from an early age, Florence was the epitome of a determined young woman. She defied her parents’ wishes to marry well and chose a career in nursing over a domestic life. She spent her time visiting hospitals across Europe until settling in Germany for her training in 1830. By 1853, Florence was superintendent at a women’s hospital in Harley Street, a role that was to be short lived with the advent of the Crimean War later that year.

As Florence once said “Live life when you have it. Life is a splendid gift - there is nothing small about it.” It is a sentiment that rings true today.

Florence & The Crimean War

Secretary of State at War, Sidney Herbert, who stands immortalised alongside Nightingale’s statue, knew Florence and appointed her to assist in the British army hospital in Scutari, Turkey. This was the first time women were allowed to serve in the military and Florence was joined by 38 dedicated nurses to treat wounded soldiers.

In 1855, the iconic portrait of Florence carrying her lamp was published in the Illustrated London News. Her work, applying mathematics to treat patients, meant that she quickly achieved national recognition as a figure of hope in Victorian Britain. Florence returned a heroine but no less determined to continue to combat disease.

Florence’s work on sanitation

Upon arriving back in England, Florence remained appalled by the horrors of war. She persuaded Queen Victoria’s government to set up a Royal Commission and analysed vast sums of Army data. Her discovery was that almost 90% of men had died due to poor sanitation, rather than sustained injuries from war. Florence published these alarming statistics alongside practices on improving cleanliness. Her guiding principles saw the army death toll reduce by 99% in just a year. 

Florence’s next thesis, Notes on Nursing, was published in 1870 and was targeted at bettering the lives and healthcare of the very poorest. Her trained nurses visited workhouses, educating others and caring for the sick. This idea of making medical care available to all is often seen as a precursor to the National Health Service, and as a predecessor to the ethos of the healthcare workers that we are so grateful for today. In the 1880s, Florence studied water supply and famine in India. She continued campaigning for the weakest in society until her death.

Florence Nightingale was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit for her work. Her statue, watches over us to this day and her legacy of hope and innovation lives on through the network of Nightingale hospitals caring for communities the length and breadth of the country. 

For more stories of pioneering women in Regent Street & St James’s past and present click here. 


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