Florence Nightingale did not think herself deeply religious and never thought she became so. But, on February 7, 1837, when she was scarcely 17 years old, she felt that God spoke to her, calling her to future “service.” From that time on her life was changed.
At first the call disturbed her. Not knowing the nature of the “service,” she feared making herself unworthy of whatever it was by leading the frivolous life that her mother and her social set demanded of her. Now she was given to periods of preoccupation, or to what she called “dreams” of how to fulfill her mission. Meanwhile she spent all her spare time visiting the cottages on her family estate and bringing neighboring poor people food and medicine.
When a family friend died in childbirth, Flo begged her parents to let her stay at the country home year round and take care of the baby instead of making her go to London for the winter social season. They vetoed the idea, believing she should mingle in society, eventually choose a husband, and bear children of the family bloodline. Too, Parthe had hysterics at the thought of the “ungrateful and unfeeling Flo” wanting to be separated from her.
In London one of Flo’s suitors again pressed her for an answer to his marriage proposal. She liked him, but she could not bring herself to say yes, especially when she did not know what “service” lay ahead.
Visiting her family home at the time were Dr. Howe and his wife, Julia Ward Howe (author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”). Florence asked Dr. Howe, “Do you think it unsuitable and unbecoming for a young Englishwoman to devote herself to works of charity in hospitals and elsewhere as Catholic sisters do? Do you think it would be a dreadful thing?”
He answered that it would be unusual and “whatever is unusual in England is thought unsuitable.” Nonetheless he advised her, “Act on your inspiration.”
If Florence was to consider nursing her “service”—and she was beginning to believe it must be—then she needed training. She proposed going to an infirmary run by a family friend.
Her parents were shocked, horrified, angry! She was a gentlewoman! Their objections were understandable. In that era English hospitals were places of degradation and filth. The malodorous “hospital smell” was literally nauseating to many, and nurses usually drank heavily to dull their senses. Florence herself admitted that the head nurse of a London hospital told her that “in the course of her long experience she had never known a nurse who was not drunken, and there was immoral conduct in the very wards.”