Florence Nightingale Comes Home for 2020

Who was Florence Nightingale?

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is one of those people that everyone has heard of, but relatively few know a great deal about.

Her public image, taught to generations of schoolchildren, is defined by her Crimean War experience: the nurse, the ministering angel, the Lady with a (or indeed The) Lamp. If you were paying attention in school, you probably also know that Nightingale made pioneering use of statistics and data visualisation, notably in her famous graphs of Crimean War death rates, and that she set up the UK's first secular nursing training school, at St Thomas' Hospital in 1860, with funds donated by the public in emotional gratitude at her war service...

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The dominance of these well-trodden stories makes it hard to get at the person behind them. A good place to start might be to ask:  what might Nightingale have become had the Crimean War never happened? When she left for Turkey in 1854, Nightingale had a burgeoning career as a healthcare manager and administrator. She had just spent a year transforming the Establishment for Ill Gentlewomen, on London's Harley Street, into an efficient, sanitary care home, and was (it appears) about to take up a managerial post at Kings College Hospital. It was her managerial abilities that attracted the British government to enlist her fo the war effort, as much as her practical nursing experience, which - owing to her wealthy family's reluctance to allow her to participate in what was perceived as a low-status occupation - was relatively limited.

The historian Hugh Small has written that Nightingale had the talents and connections to become Prime Minister, had her age allowed this of a woman. But since she lived in the nineteenth century, Nightingale would more likely have ended up as a pioneering (and pioneering female) hospital manager, a passionate advocate of female nursing in civilian hospitals, and possibly even - like a number of her friends and relatives - an early feminist campaigner; she had written a feminist essay, 'Cassandra', in 1851.

But Nightingale did go to the Crimea: a life-defining choice. From that point on there were two Nightingales - the legend, and the live person - that went in different directions. Nightingale, the woman, returned from the war exhausted, wracked by a disease historians now believe to have been brucellosis; she could barely get out of bed for the next fifteen years. She nonetheless threw enormous energy into righting the wrongs she'd seen in the war: campaigning for better sanitation in army barracks, hospitals, and civilian life, and for better nursing, available to all. When the British army went to quell the 1857-58 Indian rebellion, Nightingale became interested in the army in India, and from there, health and sanitation among the wider Indian population. The latter became a consuming interest in later decades, though not to the exclusion of extensive work on hospital design, the development of the nursing profession in the UK, and many other subjects. Meanwhile, the public perception remained dominated by heavily sentimentalised ideas of her Crimean War work.  

Nightingale is thus a major figure of nineteenth century history. Her archives, at the British Library and elsewhere, are enormous: second in size only to William Gladstone's. Her Collected Works run to 16 volumes. Innumerable books have been written on Nightingale, but many (especially those aimed at children) are based on legend as much as fact; there remains much to discover about the impact of her (often behind-the-scenes) work, and the texture of her family and friendship networks that produced the social, intellectual and moral capital that she put to use. 

Miniature bronze statuette (maquette) of Nightingale based on the Walker statue in London. Nightingale is standing with her head turned demurely to the left and towards the ground.

A miniature bronze statuette of Nightingale, based on the life-size A.G. Walker statue in London. Statuette courtesy of Peter Kay, photo by UoN Special Collections


Nightingale's polar area graphs comparing British army deaths in the Crimean war from battle, wounds, and disease over time, demonstrating that the majority of deaths came from disease.

Nightingale's "Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the East", published in Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army (1858). Public domain / wikimedia commons. 

Although these diagrams are often referred to as 'coxcombs', that was not Nightingale's term, and they should really be referred to as 'polar area graphs', as this article by Eileen Magnello explains. 


Find out more about the outlines of Nightingale's life


About the 'Nightingale Comes Home' Project

This project, funded by the AHRC, is a three-year undertaking timed to coincide with the national celebrations of Nightingale's birth in 2020. The project was designed by Professor Paul Crawford and Dr Anna Greenwood and the funding was awarded in 2017. 

The research aims to produce a more complex and nuanced historical and literary understanding of Florence Nightingale by mapping her little known, yet enduring, family and home connections to Derbyshire and describing the way these significant regional experiences impacted her career, attitudes, and writings. The project also investigates what Nightingale's story can tell historians about the cultural life of nineteenth-century Derbyshire, particularly in relation to the 'Midlands Enlightenment'. 

In addition to the lead academic investigators, the project features two postdoctoral researchers, a senior archivist, and two PhD researchers working on related topics. The project team will work in conjunction with a number of partners and supportive organisations (e.g. Florence Nightingale Foundation, Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust) and will engage with the nursing community, local government, the interested public, and local and national Nightingale enthusiasts.

We are keen to develop links with Citizen Researchers, who are pursuing interests in related topics from outside of academia. If this sounds like you, please get in touch

1845 sketch of Nightingale by Hilary Bonham Carter. Pencil drawing. Nightingale has closed eyes and short hair and faces to our right.'Sketch of Nightingale' by Hilary Bonham Carter, 1845. Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

The project envisages the following outputs:



1855 wood engraving of Nightingale wearing a shawl and carrying a candle, in a ward at Scutari hospital among the soldiers' beds. 

Florence Nightingale’, wood-engraving in Illustrated London News, 24 Feb. 1855 from drawing by unidentified artist. This image is released by the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Florence Nightingale Comes Home for 2020
Email: nightingale2020@nottingham.ac.uk