Written by Tracy Levett-Jones, Professor of Nursing Education and Head of School at the University of Technology Sydney
A few years ago, I visited the Florence Nightingale Museum in London. Situated near St. Thomas Hospital, where the original Nightingale Training School was established, this surprisingly modest building houses a collection of fascinating historical artefacts and memorabilia from the Crimean War.
As I wandered through the exhibition I couldn’t help thinking about Nightingale’s tenacity, indomitable strength and the many challenges she had to overcome. From the beginning her parents vehemently opposed her choice of career, viewing nursing as a job for the poorly educated working class, and not appropriate for a respectable woman.
During the Crimean War, Nightingale and the other army nurses worked in rat-infested and overcrowded conditions, surrounded by filth, decay, disease, pain and suffering, tending thousands of wounded and dying soldiers; and Nightingale’s attempts to implement change and improve patient care were often met with resistance from her medical colleagues.
Nightingale’s story is one of resilience, determination, strength and an unwavering sense of purpose; attributes that enabled her to eventually transform healthcare practice and education.Tracy Levett-Jones
When inspecting the Turkish lantern similar to one that Nightingale was famous for using on her ward rounds as she checked on ill, injured and dying young men, one of the museum curators shared an intriguing story…
Nightingale had been renamed ‘the Lady with the Lamp’ by a war correspondent from the Times newspaper as he felt that the nickname she had been originally been given, ‘Lady with the Hammer’, was unseemly for a respectable woman.
The curator explained that Nightingale, desperate for supplies and angered by those who would withhold those supplies from her nurses and patients, was known to take up a sledgehammer and smash the locks on the doors of the military storerooms. She may have been a woman from upper class England, but she had no hesitation in taking whatever action was needed to rectify injustice.
Throughout her life, Nightingale was a political activist and a highly effective researcher; she advocated for those who were disadvantaged and wrote extensively about the environmental and social causes of poor health, criminality, and mental illness. Her views on the need for an educated nursing workforce formed the foundation of contemporary education programs.
An international celebration
Around the world, International Nurses Day is celebrated on May 12 to celebrate Florence Nightingale’s birthday. This year’s theme ‘A Voice to Lead: A Vision for Future Healthcare’, is an appropriate testament to Nightingale, and the many strong and determined nurses who have and will continue to follow in her footsteps.
Over the last year and around the world, hundreds of thousands of nurses, called by the same sense of conviction as Nightingale and her army nurses, have been working at the front line, fighting a pandemic exacerbated by politics and greed, often in makeshift hospitals and repurposed wards. Understaffed, underfunded and underequipped, nurses in their thousands have become infected by exposure to the virus; and sadly many have died.
Behind the scenes, nurses followed Nightingale’s example and ‘took up the hammer’ (metaphorically), advocating for access to infection control resources to protect staff and improve patient safety, using statistical modelling to respond to the rapidly unfolding global pandemic, and implementing innovative and evidence-based clinical interventions designed to reduce mortality.
Healthcare has been forced to rapidly respond and adapt and, in many cases, it has been nurses who have led the transformation.
Howard Catton, International Council of Nurses Chief Executive Officer, stated that “The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in our health systems and the enormous pressures our nurses are working under, as well as shining a light on their incredible commitment and courage. What the pandemic has also done is given us the opportunity to call for a reset and the opportunity to explore new models of care where nurses are at the centre of our health systems.”
A voice to lead
Nursing is the largest healthcare workforce in the world and our combined power to enact change and improve healthcare is immense. We must all ‘take up the hammer’ and, in accord with the IND2021 theme, play a leading part in shaping the future of healthcare.
Nightingale remains a role model for contemporary nurses, not as ‘the lady with the lamp’ but as an archetypal feminist, political activist, advocate for social justice, researcher, educator and leader.
Nightingale’s story is one of resilience, determination, strength and an unwavering sense of purpose; attributes that enabled her to eventually transform healthcare practice and education. With the complexity, inherent challenges and dynamic nature of contemporary healthcare, leadership and political advocacy are as critical for today’s nurses as they were for Nightingale nearly two hundred years ago.
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