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Emulating, Rather Than Only Commemorating, Florence Nightingale This International Nurses Day

12th May is International Nurses Day, celebrated by the International Council of Nurses (ICN) since 1965. The significance of the date, as we all know, is that it is the birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. She established the first secular nursing school in 1860, the Nightingale Training School , at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, and, in doing so, laid the foundation of professional nursing. Nursing programs the world over can trace their provenance to this act.

Florence Nightingale, however, was more than just a pioneer in the field of nursing, and we would be doing her a grave injustice by commemorating her birth anniversary solely for her nursing achievements, howsoever illustrious and decorated they may be. She was also a statistician, a social reformer, and a prodigious writer. Florence Nightingale was a polymath, and her achievements outside nursing too should serve as an inspiration to both nurses and to the general public.

Florence Nightingale was a pioneer in the graphical representation of statistics, and she was elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. She is credited with developing a form of the pie chart now known as the polar area diagram,and sometimes referred to as the Nightingale rose diagram, to illustrate seasonal sources of patient mortality in the military field hospital she managed during the Crimean War. The illustration below depicts her graphical representation of the statistics. Her objective was to bring down mortality rates, and to do so she observed and collected data, collated it, analyzed it for insights, and rendered the data in forms easily understood by a layperson.

When she was at the front, during the Crimean War she believed the high death rates were due to poor nutrition and lack of medical supplies, rather than due to poor sanitary conditions at field hospitals. However, when she returned to England and began collecting evidence for the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army, she came to realise that most of the fatalities were actually on account of poor living conditions. She was broadminded enough to change her stance, and subsequently became a passionate advocate of sanitary living conditions; as well as made significant contributions to the subject of the sanitary design of hospitals.

Possibly on account of her systematic and syncretic approach to analyzing a problem, her thinking, in some areas of medicine, was far ahead of her time. She was an active proponent of preventative medicine, as opposed to therapeutic medicine, and realized that healthcare needed to be approached from a holistic rather than a symptomatic perspective: both of which reflect 21st century healthcare trends.

Finally, in an age when women of means were expected to marry and bear children only, and were groomed accordingly, she had the courage of her passion and her convictions to blaze her own path.

These accomplishments of Florence Nightingale are as important as the work she carried out in the field of nursing, and should inspire global nurses today to approach their profession with the objective of improving healthcare practices and outcomes the world over.

In India, the National Florence Nightingale Award 2014 has gone to Dr. Punitha Vijaya Ezhilarasu, Professor and Head of the Department of Surgical Nursing, College of Nursing, Christian Medical College (CMC CON), Vellore. She will receive the award from the President of India on the 12th of May.

Why don’t you drop in a line telling us who has been selected for this honour in your country?