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There are more than 5 million nurses in the United States. They work at hospitals, clinics, doctors' offices, patients' homes, special-care facilities, prisons and military bases.
If you go to sleepaway camp, there's probably a nurse on staff. Your school is likely to have one, too. Nurses make up the largest share of health care professionals in the United States and around the world.
The founder of modern nursing was Florence Nightingale. Nursing wasn't always a respected occupation. In the mid-1800s, when Nightingale was growing up, wealthy British families like hers wanted just one "job" for their daughters: to marry and raise a family.
Educated at home, Nightingale excelled in math and languages. She could read and write six languages at an early age. In her teens she began feeling "calls from God" to lessen human suffering, she said. She thought that becoming a nurse was the best way to do this.
Her parents said no, that nursing was not proper for a young woman of her social class. But she persisted. When she was age 30, she traveled to Germany for nurses training. By 1853 she was head of a hospital in London, England, for governesses, women who couldn't afford private care but would not consider going to a public facility.
Nightingale's worldwide fame as a nurse resulted from the Crimean War (1853-1856), during which Russia fought the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France.
When the British people learned of the terrible conditions in their army hospitals — where many more soldiers died of infection than war wounds — they demanded change. Nightingale was asked to lead a group of 38 nurses to the military field hospital at Scutari (in present-day Istanbul, Turkey).
The facility was crowded and filthy. There was little medicine and no soap, clean linens or drinking water. Rats ran under the beds. Lice and fleas were everywhere.
Some of the men running the hospital considered Nightingale unladylike and a nuisance. But she kept pushing as her nurses worked to clean up the place and care for patients. Healthy food, clean clothing, medicines and other supplies were provided. A special team arrived from Britain to flush out the sewers and improve airflow indoors. The hospital's death rate dropped substantially.
Nightingale's workday never ended. At night she walked the wards comforting the wounded, sometimes writing letters to home for them. They called her "the Lady with the Lamp" and "the Angel of Crimea."
She did this despite having become very ill shortly after arriving at the hospital in 1855. There was no effective treatment for her disease, probably caused by drinking contaminated milk, and it afflicted her for decades.
Still, she kept working. She created a statistics diagram showing how better hygiene in hospitals saves lives. She established the world's first professional nursing school, now part of King's College London. The United States government consulted her about its field hospitals in the Civil War, and officials in India sought her advice about public health. Her books on hospitals and nursing are still read by health care workers today, 112 years after her death.
Thanks to Nightingale, the public came to regard nursing as an important and honorable profession, something the coronavirus pandemic has reemphasized. And it's not just a job for women: 10 percent of today's nurses are men, according to the World Health Organization. That, too, is something to celebrate.