Florence Nightingale’s Bicentenary

Florence Nightingale was born 200 years ago today while her parents were on a Grand Tour of present-day Italy. Frances and William Nightingale named their two daughters after the cities where they were born: Florence was named after the Tuscan city and her sister was called Parthenope, the Ancient Greek name for Naples.

Florence Nightingale’s father, William Edward Nightingale, matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1811. He changed his surname from Shore to Nightingale when he inherited the estate of Lea Hurst in Derbyshire from his great-uncle, Peter Nightingale. Florence and Parthenope had a comfortable and privileged upbringing, spending summers at Lea Hurst and winters at Embley Park, the family’s Hampshire estate. William placed great importance on his daughters’ education, and they were particularly encouraged to learn languages and mathematics. Florence developed a particular interest in statistics and was later to comment that she could “never be sufficiently thankful to Papa for having given me an interest in Statistical & Political matters” which both proved invaluable in her later career.

Drawing of Lee Hurst from Athena, an Owlet from the Parthenon, p 57

From a young age Florence Nightingale was frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to upper-class women and was not content to restrict her charitable work to her family’s estate. In 1842 she met the poet and politician Richard Monckton Milnes, also an alumnus of Trinity College. He was twenty years her senior and courted her for several years before proposing marriage. At the time, Milnes was a rising star in radical politics and therefore an attractive prospect for a young woman who felt called to improve the world – but Florence turned him down, fearing that marriage would distract her from her work. Despite the disappointment he must have felt, Milnes continued to be one of Florence Nightingale’s staunchest supporters and they corresponded regularly for years. Our collection of his papers includes several letters written by Florence.

A note from Florence Nightingale to Richard Monckton Milnes thanking him for chairing at meeting a St Thomas’ Hospital (Houghton 18/145)

Florence Nightingale is best known for her work during the Crimean War, where she trained nurses and organised care for wounded soldiers. When she and her team arrived, the death rate in military hospitals was extremely high and it was difficult to obtain medical supplies. Nightingale significantly improved the hygiene of military hospitals, introducing handwashing and other good practices which reduced the spread of disease. Another striking achievement was her ability to source equipment in the face of governmental and military disorganisation, and Milnes did much behind the scenes to ensure that she received the supplies she needed. His papers contain a large and fascinating collection of pamphlets relating to the Crimean War, ranging from political and military documents to poems inspired by the tragic deaths and Florence Nightingale’s heroism.

In May 1855, Florence Nightingale fell gravely ill with what is now thought to have been Brucella melitensis. She refused to travel back to England to recover, and to lift her spirits her sister Parthenope wrote her a short book entitled ‘Athena, an Owlet from the Parthenon’. A copy of this rare volume, which was printed and distributed among close friends and family, was found among the Crewe Collection which was bequeathed to Trinity College in 2015. The story tells the story of Athena, the little owl rescued in Athens and raised as a beloved pet until her death shortly before Florence Nightingale departed for the Crimea. Along with gentle, humorous prose telling the story of Athena’s adoption and life from her own perspective, it includes some beautiful lithograph prints of Florence and Athena together. It has been fully digitised and can be viewed in the Wren Digital Library.

Florence with her owl from Athena, an Owlet from the Parthenon, page 17

Florence Nightingale spent her later life campaigning for improvements to medical care and hospital planning, taking advantage of her connections with influential figures to influence government policy wherever possible. She was also integral to the development of training programmes for midwives and nurses. She died in 1910, aged 90. Her legacy lives on in the Nightingale School attached to St. Thomas’ Hospital in London as well as through the Nightingale Hospitals established in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Excerpt from a letter from Parthenope to Richard Monckton Milnes describing Florence’s work in Scutari in 1854 (Houghton 18/148/2).