Florence Nightingale is considered to be the mother of modern nursing. Born in 1820 to a wealthy upper-class family, she rebelled against her family’s wishes and became a nurse. Her most famous contribution came during the Crimean War where she earned herself the nickname of “The Lady With The Lamp” for her unyielding devotion to caring for injured soldiers. Her stanch commitment to providing proper care for the injured led to the creation of the first modern military hospital. She was credited with improving hygiene and reducing the mortality rate of the wounded from 42% to 2%. In honor of her contributions, the Nightingale Fund was established in Crimea for the purpose of training nurses. This honor was bestowed in a public meeting with the Duke of Cambridge being named as the commissioner.
Over the course of her life, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria, was appointed a Lady of Grace of the Order of St. John, and became the first woman to receive the Order of Merit. Regardless of her accomplishments, she was still only human and endured several very real human afflictions. She personally documented suffering through severe bouts of depression during her teens and early 20s in her journal. After serving in Crimea, she was intermittently bedridden from stints of extreme fever and severe depression interspersed with bouts of high productivity. At the time, her mood swings were written off as symptoms of a difficult Brucellosis infection.
Posthumously, however, many physicians speculate that the cause of her depression and anxiety may not have been so easily dismissed. At the age of 31, Florence Nightingale asked God, in a letter, why she couldn’t find happiness. In fact, she described herself as “starving, desperate, and diseased” on the matter. Her journals and personal letters also indicate extended battles with insomnia, anorexia, and anxiety. This evidence has led many modern psychologists to debate a more comprehensive diagnosis. Dr. Kathy Wisner, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, focused on Nightingale’s letter to God as potential proof that Nightingale suffered from bipolar disorder as bipolar disorder can be characterized by long periods of depression followed by remarkable bursts of productivity.
In 2003, Dr. Wisner presented Nightingale as an anonymous case during an annual conference where historical figures are diagnosed by experienced clinicians using modern terms. Details presented included remarks that Nightingale had heard voices, experienced a number of severe depressive episodes, and yet, was still capable of lucid bouts of extreme creativity. During the case study presentation, Dr. Wisner described the cycle as including frequent expressions of a sense of failure and worthlessness despite the accolades Nightingale had received. Dr. Wisner explained, “the manic periods of bipolar disorder allow for extreme productivity, creativity and insight that go beyond what would normally be possible.”
While posthumous diagnoses are an interesting diversion, many people are offended at the thought of tarnishing Nightingale’s sterling reputation. This type of study isn’t an attack, however, it is more of a nod to her incredible perseverance and dedication. It is easy to see that even with symptoms consistent with a mental illness, Florence Nightingale was able to not only function within society but to create a lasting legacy within the field of nursing. She was a truly selfless person who devoted her life to providing the best care possible to her patients. This devotion is why, on May 12th, we recognize her birthday as the culmination of Nurse’s Week on a day aptly named International Nurse’s Day.