Florence Nightingale: The Lady with the Lamp and Pie Chart

Florence Nightingale color sketch
Florence Nightingale  – Source

Florence Nightingale is remembered as the lamp-carrying nurse who, during the Crimean War, would check on each soldier during the night. After the war, she spent the rest of her life writing about how to improve patient care and used infographics to get her point across.

2020 marks the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth and has been designated the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife by The World Health Organization. It seems like the perfect time to remember this amazing lady and all those who are following in her footsteps today. Thank you to all the medical professionals who are helping us through this difficult time.

A Girl Named Florence

Florence was named after the city of her birth. In 1819 while William and Frances Nightingale were on a three-year honeymoon tour of Italy, their first daughter was born in Naples. They called her Parthenope after the Greek name of that city. Thirteen months later, in Florence, their second daughter arrived, and, of course, they named her Florence.

The following year, the Nightingales returned to England where Florence grew up in the family home in Hampshire. Girls didn’t go to school, but the Nightingales provided a classical education for their daughters at home. Florence learned French, German, Italian, and she had a special fondness for mathematics.

Florence Nightingale with lamp checking on patient
Florence Nightingale – an Angel of Mercy – Scutari Hospital 1855. “When all the medical officers have retired for the night, and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand making her solitary rounds.” -Letter from Scutari in the Times, Feb 1855.  Source

Called to be a Nurse

Florence’s parents assumed she would marry and have a family like all respectable young ladies. But even as a young girl, Florence thought her life might go in a different direction. One day she was reading under a tree, when she felt God speak to her. He told her she had a special calling to help others. At that time, Florence didn’t know exactly what her calling was, but she continued to have these experiences from time to time.

When she was around seventeen, Florence finally realized what her calling was: She wanted to be a nurse and help the sick. But, at the time, nurses didn’t have a very good reputation. They tended to be crude, rough women who drank a lot and showed little compassion toward their patients. Respectable women did not become nurses, and Florence’s parents forbade it. They wanted her to find a nice man, marry, have children, and forget all about that nursing thing.

Print of drunken nurse from 18th  - early 19th century
Drunken Nurse by Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827). Source

Troubles at Home

For the next decade or so, the Nightingale house was in turmoil as Florence insisted she wanted to be a nurse and her parents insisted she should marry. Florence was nearly thirty and close to a breakdown from all the conflict.

Her parents decided a change of scenery might get all those crazy nursing ideas out of her head. So they sent her on a European holiday with family friends. But while the others were wandering through museums, Florence was visiting hospitals. In Kaiserswerth, Germany she heard about a nursing school for young, middle class ladies. It seemed like a sign to her.

Florence Goes to School

Florence had already turned down several marriage proposals, and when she got back from Germany, she announced that she definitely would not marry. She was determined to become a nurse and care for the sick.

Her parents finally gave in, and Florence went back to the Kaiserswerth nursing school. During the three-month training course, Florence learned about the importance of cleanliness, nutrition, and fresh air in maintaining health. She also learned to make beds, bathe patients, and even got to observe operations. She must have thought she was in heaven!

At age thirty-one, Florence finally achieved her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. After graduating, she returned to England to her first nursing job: She was in charge of organizing a Hospital for Gentlewomen on Harley Street in London.

Print of Florence Nightingale tending to the wounded
Florence Nightingale in Scutari Hospital. Source

Crimean War

A few years later, the Crimean War broke out between Turkey and Russia. Great Britain joined and sent troops to aid Turkey. They sent 30,000 British soldiers, a few doctors, a bit of medicine, and no nurses.

Florence received a letter from the General Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert. He asked her to recruit a team of nurses for the Scutari hospital for wounded soldiers in Istanbul. Florence found thirty-eight women who she deemed suitable. Most of them were nuns who she knew would follow her instructions.

Scutari Hospital

When they walked into the hospital, the ladies were horrified by the conditions. It was dark and smelly – very smelly. There were no beds and wounded men were lying on the floor with rats running around them. The patients were being fed stale and moldy food, and the toilet, which was no more than a hole in the floor, was overflowing. It’s not surprising that some of the doctors thought this was no place for women.

Undaunted, Florence and her team went to work. They opened windows to let in fresh air, then they swept, mopped, and scrubbed everything. They bought beds, repaired pillows and blankets, had the toilets cleared, and got rid of the vermin. They began to serve the men healthy food, change their soiled bandages, and bathe them. The men’s health improved, and doctors decided that nurses might just be useful after all.

Print of Florence Nightingale in Scutari hospital
Florence Nightingale in Scutari Hospital. Source

Lady with the Lamp

Florence believed that no man should die alone. So every night, after the other staff had gone to bed, she would take her lamp and walk along the rows of patients. She checked on each and every soldier. She became known as “The Lady with the Lamp” and was such a comfort to the injured men that some of them even kissed her shadow as she passed.

Lady with the Pie Chart

After the war, Florence returned to England. Unfortunately, she had caught Crimean Fever and never fully recovered. By age thirty-eight, she was often bedridden and barely left her house. Even though she was in poor health the rest of her days, she didn’t let that stop her. She just put down her lamp and took up writing and drawing pie charts.

Florence wrote more than two hundred books and pamphlets expounding the benefits of healthy diet, cleanliness, and fresh air in preventing disease. And she put her love of mathematics to good use by making infographics to illustrate her data.

She used a sort of pie chart, which she called a coxcomb, to show the number of deaths, and more importantly, causes of death in the military hospital. It clearly illustrated that many more soldiers died from preventable disease than from battle wounds. Her clear presentation convinced the government that health standards in military hospitals (and then all hospitals) needed to be upgraded.

Florence Nightingale chart showing causes of deaths in military hospital
“Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the East” by Florence Nightingale. Red – deaths caused by wounds, Black – deaths from other causes, Blue – deaths caused by diseases. Source

Nightingale Nursing School

Florence had shown everyone what a difference trained nurses could make. In 1860 she started her own nursing school at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. It was funded with donations from the public and was the first secular nursing school in the world. It’s still in operation today as part of Kings College in London. Thanks to Florence, nursing had become a respectable profession.

In 1910, at age ninety, Florence died in her sleep in her London home. She was buried in a quiet ceremony near her childhood home, but there was also a large service held at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was attended by royalty and many important people, but Florence would have been most proud of the hundreds of young women who came to honor the Lady with the Lamp who had inspired them to take up their nurses caps.

Photograph of Florence Nightingale with a group of nursing students around 1890
Florence Nightingale with a class of nurses from her training school around 1890. Source

Help Save the Museum

The Florence Nightingale Museum is located on the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, the same location where Florence began her nurses training school in 1860.

Unfortunately, the museum is under threat of closure and needs to raise funds. You can see how to make a donation on this page. The museum can be found at parking level, 2 Lambeth Palace Road, London, SE1 7EW

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Florence Nightingale with soldier
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Margo Lestz


  1. It might be well known, but you have told Florence Nightingale’s story excellently. Thank you, Margo. I hope all continues well with you. Paula

    1. Thank you, Paula. I had a lot of experience with nurses at the end of last year, and I found them to be such kind and caring people. Where would we be without them? They deserve to have an entire year dedicated to them.
      We are well in London. The sun is shining and the weather is warming up. Too bad we can’t go on holiday, but at least now we can go out more than once per day for exercise.
      Wishing all the best to you and yours.

  2. I toured the museum about 15 years ago. And the Old Operating Theatre nearby. Highly recommended. Thanks for sharing her story at this critical time. Warm regards to you!

    1. Hi Jody,
      I hope you are well and staying safe.
      I think the museum is a little hidden gem and hope it will be able to survive. Many places are saying they might not be able to reopen after this shutdown. I read today that the Shakespeare Globe might not reopen. It’s such a shame. I hope we will start approaching normal sometime soon.

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