A Look at Nursing Then and Now

Nurses today are as crucial to patient care as Florence Nightingale was to the wounded soldiers she cared for over 150 years ago. The uniforms may be different, but the compassionate care that Florence Nightingale is remembered for remains a model for nursing and healthcare today.

Nightingale is well known for her dedication to caring for the “sick poor.” Among other topics, students in the RN to BSN program at USC Aiken develop a foundation in community and public health nursing, which prepares them to improve outcomes for vulnerable populations. Nightingale’s foundational work in the 1800s continues to guide modern nursing today.

Who Was Florence Nightingale?

Florence Nightingale was born May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy to a prominent British family. History.com notes that she avoided the social climbing that might have been expected of her. Instead, she took an early interest in caring for the sick and the poor.

From a young age, Nightingale knew she wanted to be a nurse. Her family objected, as nurses were not held in high regard at the time. Nightingale persisted, and in the early 1850s she enrolled as a nursing student at a hospital in Germany.

What followed over the next decade is an undeniable inspiration for nurses to take the lead in advancing healthcare reform today:

  • Nightingale took a nursing position at a London hospital, where she cared for patients during a cholera outbreak. She was promoted within a year to a supervisory role.
  • In October 1853, the Crimean War broke out. Nightingale was asked to organize a nursing team to care for wounded soldiers in Scutari, Turkey.
  • She arrived in 1854 with a few dozen nurses to find more soldiers dying from dysentery and other diseases than their injuries. The British Heritage Society described the conditions as deplorable, and “sanitary conditions were such that cholera and lice were rampant.”
  • Nightingale worked tirelessly to improve hygiene and health. History.com reports that her efforts in Scutari reduced the death rate by two-thirds.
  • In 1860, Nightingale established the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, the first professional nursing school.

How Is Nightingale’s Legacy Relevant to Nursing Today?

Nightingale was a fierce advocate for the soldiers and other patients she treated. Nurses today are also known for putting their patients first.

When it came to ethical standards, Nightingale was a torchbearer who continues to inspire today’s nurses. For the past 16 years, RNs have held the top spot in a Gallup Poll ranking honesty and ethical standards in 22 professions.

Nightingale pushed for reforms seen in healthcare today. Hygiene practices are a notable example. Her improvement of sanitary conditions saved many lives. Improving patient outcomes continues to be important in the nursing profession today. In particular, patients cared for by BSN-prepared nurses:

  • Are less likely to die.
  • Have shorter hospital stays.
  • Have lower healthcare costs.

The links between Florence Nightingale and modern nursing are also seen in research and statistics. Data visualization may seem like a new trend, but Nightingale was already making data accessible through tables, charts and diagrams. She famously translated data on causes of mortality in hospitals in her “rose diagram” (also known as a polar area diagram).

As Plus Magazine points out, Nightingale’s statistical work is as important now as it was in the mid-19th century. The amount of data is growing at astonishing rates in healthcare. With today’s expectations of evidence-based practice, data visualization makes it easier to recognize patterns and improve patient care.

In Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not, Florence Nightingale wrote:

… the symptoms or the sufferings generally considered to be inevitable and incident to the disease are very often not symptoms of the disease at all, but of something quite different — of the want of fresh air, or of light, or of warmth, or of quiet, or of cleanliness, or of punctuality and care in the administration of diet, of each or of all of these … If a patient is cold, if a patient is feverish, if a patient is faint, if he is sick after taking food, if he has a bed-sore, it is generally the fault not of the disease, but of the nursing.

Florence Nightingale was a leader in patient-centered care. Today, RNs are also being called on to take the lead at all levels to transform healthcare and improve patient outcomes.

Learn more about USC Aiken’s online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.


History: Florence Nightingale

British Heritage: Florence Nightingale

Gallup: Nurses Keep Healthy Lead as Most Honest, Ethical Profession

RWJF: Building the Case for More Highly Educated Nurses

Smithsonian.com: The Surprising History of the Infographic

Plus Magazine: Florence Nightingale: The Compassionate Statistician

Gutenberg.org: Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not by Florence Nightingale

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