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Why is International Nurses Day May 12?

Happy 200th birthday to Florence Nightingale, the woman who was so influential to nursing history that International Nurses Day is celebrated on the anniversary of her birth each year.

Nightingale is one of the most influential people in the history of nursing. International Nurses Day is a day dedicated to honor and note the many contributions nurses make to society, as Nightingale did for nursing and her community.

Florence Nightingale was born May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy (her older sister was also born in Italy), though her parents were from England. The family returned to England in 1821 where they had a summer home in in Derbyshire called Lea Hurst, and a winter home in Hampshire called Embley. The family was wealthy and though Nightingale's father believed in homeschooling his daughters, he also expected them to marry at a young age.

However, when Florence was a teenager, she believed she received a “calling” from God to help the poor and the sick. Nursing was not a respected profession at the time, but Nightingale told her parents that she wanted to become a nurse. Initially, her parents did not approve and would rather see their daughter get married and raise a family. Nightingale refused marriage.

Eventually, her father allowed her to go to Germany for three months to study at Pastor Theodore Fliedner’s hospital and school for Lutheran Deaconesses. After finishing the program in Germany, Nightingale went to Paris for extra training with the Sisters of Mercy. By the time she was 33, Nightingale was already making a name for herself in the nursing community. She returned to England in 1853 and became the superintendent and manager of a hospital for “gentlewomen” in London.

The British were unprepared when the Crimean War began in 1854. They were struggling to deal with the number of sick and injured soldiers and the lack of medical supplies, unsanitary conditions, and overcrowding caused many people to complain. Newspapers even began to report about the terrible state of medical care.

The Secretary of War, Sidney Herbert, asked Florence Nightingale to manage a group of nurses that would go treat the wounded soldiers. She agreed, and on November 4, 1854, Nightingale and 38 nurses arrived at the British camp outside of Constantinople. The doctors were unwelcoming in the beginning because they did not want to work with female nurses. However, as the number of patients increased, the doctors succumbed to the nurses.

The nurses brought supplies, nutritious food, cleanliness, and sanitation to the military hospital. They also provided individual care and support. Nightingale was known for carrying a lamp and checking on the soldiers at night, so they gave her the nickname “the Lady with the Lamp.” Within six months, Nightingale and her team transformed the hospital. The death rate went down from 40 percent to 2 percent!

When Nightingale returned from the war, she continued to improve the conditions of local hospitals. She presented her experiences and her data (on what might have been the first pie chart) to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1856. This data was the reason they formed a Royal Commission to improve the health of the British Army. Nightingale was so skilled with data and numbers that in 1858 she was also elected as the first woman member of the Royal Statistical Society.

Nightingale continued to spread her healthier medical practices by helping to set up the Army Medical College in Chatham in 1859. That same year, she also published a book called Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it is Not. Her book gave advice on good patient care and safe hospital environments. As a result of her efforts during the war, a fund was set up for Nightingale to continue teaching nurses in England. In 1860, the Nightingale Training School at St. Thomas’ Hospital was officially opened.

Nightingale was often bedridden from illness in her later years but continued to advocate for safe nursing practices until her death on August 13th, 1910 at the age of 90. Her legacy continued, two years after her death, the International Committee of the Red Cross created the Florence Nightingale Medal, that is given to excellent nurses every two years. Also, International Nurses Day has been celebrated on her birthday since 1965. In May of 2010, the Florence Nightingale Museum at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London reopened to honor the hundredth anniversary of Nightingale’s death.

It's no wonder International Nurses Day is celebrated on the anniversary of Florence Nightingale's birth. It's also no surprise most countries have turned the celebration of nurses into a full week, starting May 6th and going until May 12th. A grand "THANK YOU" to all past, present, and future nurses, may you stay safe and continue to help the world.

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