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Florence Nightingale


By Cecil Woodham-Smith
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Florence Nightingale by Cecil Woodham-Smith

Florence Nightingale (1951) tells the legendary story of the “Lady with the Lamp,” the famed nurse who arrived to soothe the souls of those wounded in the Crimean War. It chronicles her journey to the conflict’s horrific medical barracks, and how she used her experiences to forever change the way hospitals are run and how the sick are treated. 

Key idea 1 of 10

The Voice of God

When Florence Nightingale was a little girl, her parents failed to find a suitable governess. Her father, William Edward Nightingale – or W. E. N., as everyone called him – had extremely high intellectual standards that no governess could meet. And her mother, Fanny, expected refinement, elegance, and good breeding – expectations that no governess could live up to.

In the end, Florence and her older sister, Parthe, were taught by their father, who devised a strict curriculum that included history, mathematics, and philosophy, not to mention Greek, Latin, German, French, and Italian. W. E. N. may have had an exacting nature, but he was devoted to his daughters. He loved them deeply.

Thanks to his father’s mining interests, W. E. N. was a wealthy man. He owned an estate in Hampshire, in England’s southeast, and a summer home in the East Midlands. Because of his status, he became involved in local politics. He even ran for parliament, though he wasn’t elected.

Given their social standing, the Nightingale daughters were fixtures at many parties thrown by family and friends. By all accounts, they were both exceedingly charming. But this wasn’t necessarily a good thing – at least, not as far as Florence was concerned.

When she was 16 years old, Florence had a profound, life-changing experience. On February 7, 1837, she heard the voice of God. It called her to work in His service. At first, she didn’t know exactly what this meant. What was she to do? Well, for one thing, she felt she should probably stop attending parties. This was a difficult decision; after all, she enjoyed the parties, especially the attention she received. 

But Florence knew she was destined for greater things. She also knew that she’d have to be strict with herself if she were to achieve this higher goal. That would mean avoiding frivolous pleasures, like parties. And it would mean avoiding marriage. 

This didn’t sit well with either her mother or her sister. Nor was it easy for Florence. In fact, she agonized over her decision for nearly a decade. Over the next ten years, Florence would meet plenty of suitors. Some of them even proposed marriage. She turned them all down. It drove Fanny absolutely mad, and Parthe suffered as well. She was only a year older than Florence, and she didn’t understand what her sister was trying to do with her life. This drama continued for years: courtship, denial, familial despair; courtship, denial, familial despair. And it didn’t get any better once Florence finally understood the true nature of her calling.

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