How Ladies' Aid Societies Worked

Florence Nightingale: Legitimizing Women's Work in War

Because of her habit of personally attending to patients during the night, Florence Nightingale earned the name "Lady of the Lamp."
Because of her habit of personally attending to patients during the night, Florence Nightingale earned the name "Lady of the Lamp."
London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Crimean War erupted in 1853 among major European powers who wanted control over Palestine. The war pitted Russia against Britain, France and Ottoman Turkey. In the midst of horrific medical conditions, diseases such as dysentery and cholera fatally swept through the troops. When word got out to the British public about the conditions their soldiers were living in, outrage paved the way for a relief movement. The British secretary of state at war personally requested one prominent nurse, Florence Nightingale, to lead a group of 38 female nurses to improve conditions on the war front.

Nightingale was born into a comfortable, affluent family and showed an enduring dedication to serving the sick. But more than that, her education and perseverance gave her the resources to advance understanding and awareness of good sanitary principles. She'd studied scientific evidence of the connection between good sanitation and fewer deaths from disease. By the time of the Crimean War, she had established herself as a nursing expert who helped reduce fatality rates in hospitals by improving sanitation.

When she and the other nurses arrived at the military hospital in Scutari, Turkey, she was appalled at the unsanitary conditions. Besides living in filth, the soldiers didn't have enough supplies and were stuffed like sardines into overcrowded facilities. After she had the place cleaned and instituted sanitation standards such as bathing, better food and clean clothes, Nightingale reduced the mortality rate to 2 percent [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. She became famous for this amazing feat and subsequently used her influence and knowledge to advance others' understanding of sanitary conditions.

Nightingale quickly achieved international renown. What's particularly important about Nightingale's sanitation advocacy was that she demonstrated to the world that the tasks of cleaning and preparing food, which were traditionally considered women's work, played pivotal roles in the male world of war. Nightingale convinced authorities that they needed help from the fairer sex in wartime -- shattering gender expectations.

Scholars attribute the development of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) during the Civil War to Nightingale, but a woman who was more directly involved with this organization's inception was Elizabeth Blackwell, a close friend of hers.