A Nightingale flies in


To celebrate International Nurses Day (12th May) and the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth, we look at how the pioneering nurse started out on her path to greatness at a Harley Street hospital.

On 12th August 1853, the 33-year-old daughter of a wealthy landowner took up residence as the superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen on Upper Harley Street. It was her first employment of any kind, but she came to it determined to make an impact. Her name was Florence Nightingale.

Nightingale’s life to that point had been spent gaining an education and travelling around Europe and north Africa, all the while cultivating a burning interest in a profession considered way below the purview of a respectable upper class woman: nursing.

While in Kaiserswerth-am-Rhein in Germany in 1850, she had visited a Lutheran community renowned for its care of the sick and spent several months learning their techniques. She was, she decided, ready to get a job.

Unpaid role
Nightingale’s role as superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen was unpaid—her father provided her with an annual income of £500, paid quarterly in advance, to pay for her keep and that of a housekeeper—but she threw herself headlong into her work, insisting on a rare degree of autonomy. “Unless I am left a free agent and am to organise the thing myself and not they [the institute’s committee], I will have nothing to do with it,” she wrote.

Her stated aim was to turn the hospital into a training school for nurses but, much to her frustration, this never quite worked out. She did, however, introduce some significant practical reforms, battling all the while with nurses who, she wrote, gave her “infinite trouble” and had “neither love nor conscience”. The superintendent had no qualms about firing staff—one nurse was dismissed by Nightingale in May 1854 for her “love of opium and intimidation”.

Limit admissions
The hospital was meant to treat women suffering from short-term illnesses, but Nightingale was concerned that some of the poorer patients were deliberately prolonging their stay for as long as possible, taking advantage of the comfortable lodgings. One of the superintendent’s major campaigns involved convincing the committee to limit admissions to the seriously ill.

After just over a year in Marylebone, the superintendent, upset by her failure to open a training centre, began secret negotiations with King’s College Hospital. In October 1854, before these discussions could be concluded, she received a communication from the War department requesting that she lead a party of nurses to Scutari in Turkey, to treat wounded soldiers from the battlefields of Crimea. The nation called; Florence Nightingale answered. The rest is history.