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The Health of Humanity

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Deva-Marie Beck, PhD, RN
Extract from the publication Florence Nightingale Today:

A young portrait

“Today, the magnitude of human health problems — even in our communities, as well as in our world — may seem insurmountable. Antibiotic-resistant microbes are on the increase, with the potentially-virulent return of small pox, dengue fever, tuberculosis, and new strains of malaria, with the recent onset of newer killer diseases such as AIDS and SARS.

Beyond these disease-vector issues, health issues also encompass economic and social issues.  For example, our health problems are compounded by the recent precipitous rise in health care costs. The health of humanity is profoundly affected by the recent exacerbation of hatred in the form of terrorism surfacing in many distressed and war-torn areas around the world.

These conditions — added to the looming impact of the significant shortage of nurses, nursing educators and other healthcare professionals — seem overwhelming, perhaps beyond our reach to even consider, little alone trying to plan or implement what must be done to address them. Despite all of our technical advances and perhaps, in part, because of them, our human health concerns are as immense as in Nightingale’s time. They remain "nearly as old as the world, nearly as large as the world, as pressing as life or death" (Nightingale, 1893, p. 184).

At the end of her long career, Nightingale reflected upon the possibilities beyond her lifetime,  "in the future which I shall not see, for I am old, may a better way be opened! May the methods by which every infant, every human being will have the best chance at health. . . . be learned and practiced" (Nightingale, 1893, p. 198). With these words, she looked forward to the coming decades and centuries. She envisioned people who could evolve nursing’s scopes of practice by continually upgrading our ways, means, and arenas for promoting the health of human beings.  

As we look to the contributions we can make in our generation, Nightingale’s own life is a blueprint for the foundations we can build.  As a nurse, she made major contributions to nursing theory, education, research, statistics and public health. As a nurse, she was also a visionary author who wrote about a broad range of health topics. She called for providing health care mostly at home, rather than in hospitals, for further establishing our significant role as health educators, and for improving the health of regional populations, as well as the health of individuals. With her own perspectives and accomplishments, she also modeled a broader scope of nursing practice.

As a nurse, Nightingale was an interdisciplinarian who collaborated with other disciplines to promote health in a variety of ways and in numerous arenas.  As a nurse, she was a media expert shaping public opinion about the value of nursing and health issues. As a nurse, she was a health-policy maker collaborating with others to establish improvements in the environment and to promote cultural understanding. As a nurse, she was an international networker, constantly communicating with and connecting her friends and colleagues in the service of health around the world. As a nurse, she was an advisor to national leaders in many countries. As a nurse, she was a global citizen who understood that one person can make a significant difference in the health of humanity. She identified these scopes as "sick-nursing" and "health-nursing."

Nightingale understood that the health of nations and of our world is dependent upon the health of individuals, particularly women and children. She advocated for broadly-based health literacy and knowledge. She linked environmental and economic concerns to sustainable health.

She saw nurses accomplishing, just as she had done, their roles as health promoters, as health educators, as leaders and as major contributors to the issues of human health — from personal to global levels. This is the width, breadth and depth of her blueprint for nursing and for healthcare. This is the panorama of her legacy for us and for our time.

Looking at Nightingale’s achievements, it is tempting to say that she was an exception, a genius, an extraordinary woman, someone who did far beyond what any of us can do in our time.

Yet, the sustainability of the human race — even across this present 21st century — requires that some people — as concerned citizens and as committed health advocates — see the world like Nightingale saw it. For her, the world was a global arena where local, smaller health promotion-focused solutions were created as models of success.  Across her career, she worked on a series of local projects — from a Crimean battlefield hospital, to providing adequate provisions and conditions for British soldiers, to developing a system of secular nursing education, to collaborating to improve health outcomes in numerous small projects across the English-speaking world. Nightingale’s strategy was to address the magnitude of global health problems with local health-promoting solutions and to follow-up with data collected to improve her plans.”


FN statue

At the Crimean War Memorial in London, UK with Dr. Susan Hassmiller, Senior Advisor for Nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, taken on her 2010 Nightingale Journey. This statue is one of only two of non-royal women in Central London.

Flo with Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the 2010 Nightingale Centenary opening of the Florence Nightingale Museum in London, UK