Florence Nightingale Early Life

The Can-Do Wisdom of Florence Nightingale – Part 1

The story of Florence Nightingale’s life is relevant today for men and women who aspire to lead society into a better future. Having been born into wealth she could have followed her obvious destiny to lead a life of luxury and comfort in Victorian England. Instead she chose to use her considerable talents and resourcefulness to bring about lasting change in the world. In this way she is a model of an I Can, I Do leader who inspires We Can, We Do followers.

I never lose an opportunity of urging a practical beginning, however small, for it is wonderful how often in such matters the mustard-seed germinates and roots itself.
                   – Florence Nightingale[2]

This blog post is the first of three parts.

Part 1 covers the first three decades of her life in preparation for the period of her public life when Florence Nightingale would become a household name and a hero to the world. This was a period of learning, practise and dedication to a nursing ‘hobby’ that, in spite of intense opposition from her family, was to become her true vocation.

Part 2 examines the brief period of Florence Nightingale’s public life covering her first nursing experience and then as Superintendent of female nurses at the Scutari Military Hospital in Constantinople during the Crimean War. This is where her knowledge and organizational skills, her observations, her leadership, her network of contacts, and her communications abilities were used to ‘get things done’ when others said it ‘couldn’t be done’.

Part 3 covers the period of Florence Nightingale’s life after the end of the Crimean War up to her death in 1910. It was during this period that she left the legacy for generations to come by using her knowledge and influence to affect lasting change in army health, medical health in India, hospitals, medical statistics and nurse education.

Who was Florence Nightingale?

Florence was born on 12 May 1820 in Firenze (Florence) to English parents, William and Fanny Nightingale. The wealthy couple were on an extended honeymoon tour of Europe and already had a one-year-old daughter, Parthenope, who had been born in Naples.

The parents had backgrounds in the Unitarian Church, a dissenting view of Christianity based on rational thought. Fanny’s father, William Smith, was a Member of Parliament for forty-six years who campaigned for the abolition of slave trade and the rights of religious dissenters. Fanny would also be a supporter of others in need as well as being very conscious of her status as a lady.

William, born William Edward Shore, inherited his fortune from his great-uncle, Peter Nightingale, with the condition that William change his name to Nightingale. Educated at the University of Cambridge, his inheritance meant he could live a leisurely life as a country gentleman with cultivated interests to explore. In fact, his major interests would be the design of the houses his family would need, and the education of his two daughters.

Upon returning from Europe in 1821, they stayed in was Lea Hall in Derbyshire which Peter Nightingale had owned while they made plans for a more suitable residence.

William then set about designing a new family home on the estate. Completed in 1825, Lea Hurst was a mansion of fifteen bedrooms set in a beautifully terraced garden with sweeping views of the countryside.

However this manor didn’t suit Fanny. It was too far away from the society people she wanted to entertain and was far too cold and desolate in winter. In 1825 William acquired Embley Park manor in Hampshire. Being on the south coast of England, close to London and with neighbours of high standing, it was the ideal home for Fanny to entertain while Lea Hurst remained their summer residence.

Florence Nightingale as a child

Initially a governess was hired for the girls’ education, later to be taken over by William. The curriculum included Greek, Latin, history, mathematics, modern languages and music. The two sisters had very different personalities and interests. While Florence excelled in languages and mathematics, Parthe’s strengths were in music and drawing. Florence was a talented, natural academic and grew very close to her father, whereas Parthe was closer to her mother.

Florence was a lifelong learner of a wide range of subjects. For example, she would distinguish herself later in life with her grasp of statistics, having studied the pioneering work of Adolphe Quetelet, the Belgian astronomer, mathematician, statistician and sociologist.

Having been born into a wealthy family, Florence’s destiny was mapped out for her by her parents. She would be expected to marry well and lead an elegant, comfortable life of social intercourse. She would volunteer her services to worthy causes but would never lower herself with paid work. Florence had different ideas which put her on a collision course with her family.

An inquisitive child, she was already showing an interest in family illnesses and sickness from an early age. She would observe more of this in her local village and later would help those in need.

A calling for a life of service

As Florence grew into her teenage years she began to sense a conflict between what was expected of a lady of her standing and her desire to do something useful with her life. The last thing she wanted to do was to spend her time in idle chit-chat in the drawing room.

Florence was raised in the Church of England. She had been baptised as an infant in Florence and attended chapel regularly as a child.

On 7 February 1837, the then 16-year-old believed she received a ‘call’ from God to a life of service. What form this service should take, she didn’t know. She was already spending time with the poor in the local village who were mostly the victims of vast social upheaval as the Industrial Revolution ran its course.

Her faith would be important to her for all her life although she ceased being a regular church-goer once she reached the age of thirty. By that time she was developing her own religious theology, one where God was benevolent and kind, unlike the vengeful, punitive deity commonly depicted. She believed that the world was subject to universal laws that emanated from a higher intelligence, that being the mind of God.

In September 1837 the family went abroad for eighteen months while their Embley Park home was expanded and renovated. Florence explored the history and politics of the places they visited. She made copious notes of facts, numbers and observations, a practice that would prove to be one of her greatest strengths throughout her life. In particular she was interested in the way individuals, including women, were playing an active role in these cities.

How Florence Nightingale became a nurse

She wanted to be doing some form of action herself. It would be another five years before she knew nursing was her future and formed a plan of how she would proceed to learn more about nursing in order to train others.

At that time in England, nursing was not a respectable occupation. Nurses were mostly poorly paid, older, working-class women who were untrained, undisciplined, and who drank heavily. Some were prostitutes. Hospitals were often the last places you would go to—literally. Nursing of strangers was no place for a lady and Florence’s parents rejected her proposal outright.

Florence was bitterly disappointed to have her plans wrecked. She had by now become aware of a respectable institute in Germany, Kaiserswerth, near Düsseldorf, which ran a hospital and trained nurses. She was desperate to somehow go there but didn’t know how she could convince her family.

Her mother couldn’t understand why a beautiful, intelligent woman of her age was not interested in the many suitors who wanted to marry her.

The next year found her in fits of depression and periods of illness. This was relieved somewhat when family friends, Charles and Selina Bracebridge, invited her to travel with them to Rome during the English winter of 1847-48.

During her life to this point, Florence had met many important and influential people. For example, Lord Palmerston, a future Prime Minister, was a neighbor close by to their Embley Park residence. One of the most importance introductions in Rome was to Sidney Herbert and his wife, Elizabeth, who were holidaying in Europe. Sidney Herbert was the son and heir of the 11th Earl of Permbroke and the owner of vast estates as well as being a Member of Parliament. The couple were also philanthropists with an interest in hospital reform and homes for invalids. This would prove to be a connection with great promise in the future years for the Herberts and for Florence.

Her time in Rome enabled Florence to explore the doctrine of the Catholic Church and compare it to the Church of England. She was particularly impressed with the work of the Catholic nursing sisters and spent time having spiritual guidance from Sacre-Coeur nuns. This renewed her calling for a life of service. Florence also took the opportunity while she was away to visit hospitals wherever she could.

Back home at Embley Park, she was in high spirits to start with, but not for long. To give herself a break from what she was expected to do at home in looking after her ill sister, she would spend time each day teaching at the local school.

Towards the end of 1849 the Bracebridges again came to her rescue with an invitation to accompany them on a trip to Egypt. While she was away she celebrated her thirtieth birthday. It didn’t escape her to think this was the time to start her public life. Writing to her mother, she said:

I am full of hope for the life which is set before me and for the occupations of which I hope I shall find myself better prepared than I have been for those of the life which is set behind me. I have always had a tender sympathy, a longing for the age of thirty, as the age when our Saviour began his more active life. Before that, he had done nothing.[3]

It was while they were on this Egyptian trip that Selina Bracebridge came up with the plan to help Florence overcome her despair of failure. They would go to Germany on their way home and allow Florence to visit Kaiserswert. Florence’s letter to her parents telling them of the proposed travel arrangements was sent too late for a reply to be received. The brief, two-week stay was enough for Florence to want to return for more training.

In a letter to her father, dated 15 August 1850, she said:

I have had a delightful time at Kaiserswerth, spending two or three days in each department, so as to make myself as much acquainted with them as I could in that time. . . .But the hospital, though poor and ugly and by no means a pattern of cleanliness, is with regard to all essential points, the Christian school it is for the patients, the humanizing, refining, propriety-teaching school, and the tender care of the nurses, it is indeed a model for England.[4]

She would be back home in Lea Hurst a week later. He parents disapproved of her actions but it seems it was slowly dawning on them that they were fighting a losing battle.

Florence’s next break occurred in July 1851 when she travelled with her mother and sister to Germany. Parthe had been prescribed water treatments for her ailments and during this three-month period Florence would be able to stay at Kaiserswerth. The experience proved be invaluable due to the practical, clinical experience she received.

Florence still felt she had more to learn about nursing and pestered her mother to be allowed to go to Paris to stay with the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. Fanny finally relented and in January 1853 Florence was overjoyed to be able to train with the nuns.

Shortly after she was approached to see if she would be interested in becoming the superintendent of a charity hospital about to move to a new location in London. Naturally Florence jumped at the chance. Her parents did somewhat reluctantly support her this time with her father granting her an allowance of £500 a year for her to live independently.

On 29 April 1853 Florence accepted the offer to take up position of Superintendent of the Establishment for Gentlewomen during Illness. No one else in England had the knowledge and skills that Florence possessed, nor the purpose, drive or passion to make a mark in this sphere.

She was about to embark on her first real-world test as to whether or not she was up to the challenge.

Continue to Part 2: Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War


  1. Photo – H. Lenthall, London (Wikimedia Commons)
  2. Letter to a friend, quoted in The Life of Florence Nightingale Vol. II (1914) by Edward Tyas Cook, p. 406
  3. Lynn McDonald, ed. Florence Nightingale’s European Travels, Volume 7, Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004)
  4. Lynn McDonald, ed. Florence Nightingale: An Introduction to her Life and Family, Volume 1, Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010)
Posted in Leadership and tagged , , , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.