12th May 2020

200 Years On: Florence, fear and field hospitals

By Rachael Palmer, third-year student nurse, University of Plymouth

The word ‘Nightingale’ has become a household name in recent weeks, with the building of huge field hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. NHS Nightingale London was built in just 9 days. But why is Florence Nightingale a symbol for modern nursing today and how does this benefit our profession?

There are two themes to our image of Ms Nightingale. There’s the ‘lady with the lamp’, a symbol of hope, and comfort during some of her patients’ darkest moments. And there’s the statistician, the nurse who collected data and used statistical methods to enhance practice and prevent unnecessary deaths. This variation epitomises both the art and science of nursing today; the empathy and compassion, alongside the science and complexity of care. Nightingale recognised the need for nursing to be a profession of educated, organised advocates.

But any symbol isn’t without its controversy. Nightingale was not alone in her quest to change modern nursing. During the Crimea, Mary Seacole also went to the battlefield to nurse soldiers, would perform operations and nursed Cholera and Yellow Fever patients prior to the war, but her achievements have only recently been celebrated. Thus, after a campaign, the first COVID-19 rehabilitation hospital was named after Seacole.

So where did the public understanding of the art and science of nursing get lost, for nurses to become doctors’ assistants and angels? This is a huge social question to answer, with the interplay of the media and NHS hierarchies as two of many contributing issues, but I truly believe that 2020, the Year of the Nurse and Midwife is, and will be like no other for the health service. The spotlight on our profession, even from those at the top of the political tree, is welcome. Let’s just hope it’s actioned now and for future nurses.

I am one of those future nurses, and am feeling the imposter syndrome that creeps in when you near the end of your training. You cannot believe that in a few short weeks or months it’ll be you as the registered nurse responsible for the care and safety of patients, and many will have a crisis of confidence. Starting my career mid-pandemic only heightens this. But the bicentenary of Florence’s birth, alongside media, public and political attention on nursing and both its challenges and assets, fills me with hope. Just as Florence and Mary did for their patients and colleagues all those years ago.


Rachael Palmer: third-year student nurse (adult field), University of Plymouth, Student Leadership Program alumnus, Healthcare Leadership Academy Scholar 2019-20, 1/5 of @BloggersNurse, RCN Student Ambassador, Plymouth Students for Global Health Chair. @PUNCrachpalmer.