Florence Nightingale is rightly credited as the mother of modern nursing. Over the course of the Crimean War (1853-1856), she proved herself heroic, brilliant and inventive. Her campaign for better care for sick and wounded soldiers and for higher standards of hygiene saved countless lives.
Even though wounded British servicemen were shipped to Turkish medical stations, they "were poorly staffed, with insufficient supplies, and the medical and sanitary conditions were awful," according to Understanding Uncertainty. This is where Nightingale came to claim her fame, publicizing the plight of the soldiers. Typhoid, cholera and dysentery pervaded the army hospitals. All told, "the loss of life in the war was colossal. Of 1,650,000 soldiers who began the war (of all nations), 900,000 died. The majority of those who perished did not die from wounds; rather they died from diseases brought about by the terrible living conditions which they suffered."
But Nightingale was not the only standout nurse to take part in the doomed war. Two other courageous, smart women also sacrificed to heal and bring solace to combatants under often deplorable conditions. One of them, Mary Seacole, did so while fighting the prejudice she faced due to her dark skin. The other, Russian Daria Mikhailova, nursed tirelessly throughout the conflict, often sacrificing her own resources to do so.
Both women proved themselves during the Siege of Sebastopol, where, according to Brittanica, 50,000 British and French troops "besieged and finally captured the main naval base of the Russian Black Sea fleet." The seige involved a long period of soldiers being cut off from supplies and living in grotesquely unsanitary conditions.
With the celebration of these famous (and the almost famous) nurses, let's remember all the war nurses, military or family, professional or volunteer. They too gave their best and sometimes toiled without thanks or recognition.
Mary Seacole was one of the most original women ever to nurse, forging her own way and contributing wherever she could. She was in her late 40s, already a widow and world traveler, when she earned the gratitude of the troops and the nickname "The Creole with the Tea Mug" from the newspapers covering the Crimean War.
Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Her parents were a Scottish soldier and a boardinghouse owner who understood herbal healing traditions. Seacole had a good education and "developed an interest in medicine and nursing from her mother, who was a traditional healer," according to National Geographic. After her naval officer husband died in 1844, she operated a store across from her brother's hotel in Cruces, Panama, supplying prospectors heading for California's gold rush.
When the Crimean War broke out, Seacole applied to join Florence Nightingale's nursing squad, but was turned down. This may have been due to Seacole being biracial, though in later writings it was clear she never claimed that heritage publicly. In any case, the rejection didn't deter her. "Instead of giving up, Mary Seacole sailed to the Crimea at her own expense," notes Science Museum. "She and Thomas Day (a relative in the shipping business) opened the British Hotel near Balaclava a few months later in 1855. The roughly built hotel was also an officers' club and had a popular canteen serving good food. Using it as a base, she would take mules laden with food, wine and medicines across country to the battlefield front lines at Redan, Sebastopol and Tchernaya. She obtained special passes, which allowed her to look after the wounded and dying on both sides."
Settling in London after the war, Seacole was bankrupted by debts run up by soldiers at the British Hotel. Newspapers started a public campaign to raise money for her, backed by royalty and a grateful British Army. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands became a bestseller.
According to History.com, "after invading the Crimean Peninsula in the autumn of 1854, the Allied forces scored a victory at the Battle of the Alma and then besieged the vital Russian naval hub at Sebastopol" settling the Crimean War into a long stalemate. As both sides dug in, conditions turned grim, with both sides struggling through the brutal Russian winter. "Many fell victim to 'trench madness,' or shell shock, from the constant artillery bombardments and threat of enemy raids. It would eventually take 11 months before a French assault forced the Russians to evacuate Sevastopol."
An orphaned teenager when the war broke out, she was working as a laundress in the Sebastopol naval garrison when the British-led forces invaded. "According to popular legend, she sold everything she had inherited from her father, bought a horse and cart from a Jewish trader, cut her hair and dressed up as a sailor and went with the army to the Alma, where she distributed water, food and wine to the wounded soldiers," notes Remember the Past, drawing on Orlando Figes' The Crimean War. She sometimes tore her own clothes and doused them with vinegar to dress wounds.
Sebastopol is where Daria Mikhailova really shined. She continued her nursing work during the siege, earning the name "Dasha of Sebastopol" because she'd had to resort to pretending to be a male at the start and no one knew her surname. She also worked with doctor Nikolai Pirogov, considered one of the "most important anatomists and surgeons in the history of medicine," according to NCBI. Pirogov was one of the first to introduce both field surgery and anesthetics. In December 1854, Mikhailov was awarded the Gold Medal for Zeal by the Tsar, the only Russian who wasn't of noble birth to receive the honor. After Crimea, she married a wounded solider. In later years she opened a tavern in the town where she once nursed.
In a fitting tribute, Russian astronomer Lyudmila Chernykh named one of the many celestial bodies she discovered "Dasha" in honor of Mikhailova. Previously, it was known as Asteroid 3321.
A British subject born in Italy, Florence Nightingale had toured the camps in Constantinople as early as 1854 and was horrified. According to NCBI, "Injured soldiers were left on the floor and the few doctors desperately were trying to manage patients with basic facilities in the dirty environment." Nightingale approached the issue tactically, recording the hospital mortality rate and demonstrating that 600 of each thousand fatalities was caused by communicable and infectious disease.
The interventions that made her a founder of modern nursing were pretty straightforward, according to NCBI: "She tried to provide a clean environment. She provided medical equipment, clean water and fruits. With this work the mortality rate decreased from 60% to 42% and then to 2.2%."
But her efforts - and those of Pirogov and dedicated nurses like the Seacole and Mikhailova - were sadly not enough. "Infectious disease still killed far more Crimean War soldiers than combat," according to History.com. "The British alone suffered an estimated 16,000 deaths from illnesses compared to just 5,000 from battle."