The legacy of “The Lady with the Lamp” continues to be relevant even today

May 12, 2020, marks 200 years since the birth of Florence Nightingale, lovingly called “The Lady with the Lamp.” As one of the most famous figures in medical history, she is acknowledged as the pioneer of modern nursing. She was the first healthcare professional to use data to show that infection control improves health outcomes and her ground-breaking instructions on hygiene, sanitation and handwashing has helped revolutionise medicine. Today, as the Coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, her legacy has never been more relevant.

Born into a wealthy family, she felt her calling was to serve God and humankind and she saw nursing as the means to reduce human suffering. Her greatest achievement was to transform nursing into a respectable profession for women and in 1860, she established the first professional training institute for nurses. Nightingale also introduced new approaches to the emotional and psychological side of patient care, with her nurses helping soldiers write letters home during the Crimean Wars. She walked the ward at night with a lantern to check on her patients and gained her famous nickname ‘The Lady with the Lamp.’ During her active career, she published over 200 books, reports and pamphlets on hospital planning and organisation which are widely read and respected even today, including her most famous work “Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not.”

A lot of the information given in the book is as relevant today as it was during her time though the context may have changed. The book was more of a public health instruction book than a nursing manual. It advised people on how to maintain healthy homes, strongly counselling that people open windows to maximise light and ventilation and displace “stagnant, musty and corrupt” air. In her view, all domestic interiors needed to be kept spotlessly clean to avoid sickness. Dirty carpets and unclean furniture, she wrote with characteristic bluntness, “pollute the air just as much as if there were a dung heap in the basement.” Her book which included key nursing values focused on maintaining good hygiene and regularly washing hands – practices that have been widely echoed over the past months. Through her work, Florence Nightingale was able to identify and prove the impact of health workers’ hygiene on patients’ mortality rates.

Although life as we know it may have changed, the core character of nurses has not. As the pandemic continues to affect more people across the globe, the world has begun to realize just how dependent we are on the resilience of nurses tasked with caring and supporting people through their illness to good health. Nurses, along with other health workers, are on the front line, battling the deadly Coronavirus every day, providing life-saving treatment and care. In doing so, they are putting not just themselves, but also their families and loved ones at risk. In spite of the dangers however, they bravely continue to work tirelessly for long hours, often without a break and still return the next day, to do it all over again. Given the legacy that Florence Nightingale established, we are able to safely trust and believe that no matter what the circumstances, nurses and health care workers will be able to treat us, not only with their clinical knowledge but also to deliver that care with kindness.

Acknowledging the contribution of nurses and health care workers, Howard Catton, head of the International Council of Nurses (ICN) said, “We have seen unprecedented levels of overwork by nurses, particularly those specialised in intensive care units, those in management or those most directly involved in the response to the Coronavirus pandemic, oftentimes without adequate time for rest and recuperation, without support and assistance, with limited considerations for their mental health and wellbeing. We welcome the huge outpouring of positive recognition shown to health workers (such as the nightly handclapping show of solidarity in many countries) which suggests that we may be seeing some changes in attitude towards nurses.”

On International Nurses Day, let us acknowledge once again the selfless work being done by nurses the world over. You can show support and appreciation for nurses and other health professionals by helping to slow the spread of the Coronavirus by staying home as much as you can, keeping a safe distance, washing your hands often, wearing a mask in public places and observing other good hygiene habits.