Nurses Week Reflection: The Crimea, Nightingale, and Tubman Connection

The month of May is probably the most celebrated month of the year. The list, reflecting a very busy calendar, includes Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Armed Forces Day, the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May —this might be more than a day’s celebration—and Cinco de Mayo. That’s not all. Starting on May 6th through the 12th, as you swab your wounds from the disappointing performance of your favorite steed at Churchill Downs, celebrating our 3.1 million nurses should also be on the list.  

In 1982, the US Congress designated the 6th of May as National Nurses Day, but it actually goes back to an October 1954 week-long celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the queen of nurses, Florence Nightingale, for her service during the Crimean War. Yes, the same Crimea Russia just annexed. Nightingale, accompanied by 38 volunteer nurses, was put in charge of caring for British soldiers in Turkey during the War. Her efforts to formalize nursing education begun during the war, which led her to establish in 1860 the first scientifically based nursing school—the Nightingale School of Nursing, at St. Thomas’ Hospital after her return to London. International Nurses Day, observed annually on May 12, commemorates her birth and celebrates the important role of nurses in health care.

Understanding her connection to Crimea begins with an understanding of the reason for the war. In October 1853 the Turkish Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia following a series of disputes over holy places in Jerusalem and Russian demands to exercise protection over the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman sultan. The British and the French, allies of Turkey, sought to curb Russian expansion. The majority of the Crimean War was fought on the Crimean Peninsula. However, the British troop base and hospitals for the care of the sick and wounded soldiers were primarily established in Scutari, a suburb of Istanbul, Turkey.

The care of the wounded soldiers had been reported to the London Times by the first modern war correspondent, British journalist William Howard Russell, who described the medical treatment provided by the establishment as incompetent and ineffective. The most basic care supplies were either unavailable or inadequate. Between June and August, 20% of the British troops were infected with cholera, diarrhea, and dysentery, and about 1,000 died before a shot was fired. This triggered an enormous public outcry in Britain and a demand that the situation be drastically improved. Nightingale arrived in Turkey on October 21, 1854, but received a hostile reception from medical officers at Scutari hospital and barracks.

She described the conditions she found as unsanitary, supplies inadequate, staff uncooperative, and overcrowding severe. Cholera was raging and the nurses were not allowed to visit the hospital wards. So she set about recruiting soldiers’ wives to assist with the laundry and cleaning the wards. Nightingale eventually established standards of care, requiring such necessities as bathing, clean clothing, and dressings, and adequate food, which the nurses carried out. She wandered the wards at night, providing support to the patients; this earned her the title of "Lady with the Lamp." Two years into the war, Nightingale began the first of several excursions to Crimea, but they were cut short because she fell ill with “Crimean fever,” believed to be brucellosis, and it is believed she probably contracted from drinking contaminated milk. She returned home on August 7, 1856, as a reluctant heroine.

While Florence Nightingale was going about the business of establishing the procedures for scientific nursing in Britain, the US was moving ever so inexorably towards Civil War over slavery, and Harriett Tubman, a slave who engineered the Underground Railroad that afforded freedom for hundreds of slaves, would emerge a distinguished nurse and military tactician on the side of the Union Army Forces.

In 1863, when a decision was made to use black troops, Tubman was motivated to become a nurse for a regiment. When the famous Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first official “colored” units in the Civil War, marched away from Boston, she followed a few days later with a commission in her pocket from Governor John A. Andrew, a popular abolitionist. In July of that year, she led troops under the command of Colonel James Montgomery in the Combahee River expedition, disrupting Southern supply lines by destroying bridges and railroads. The mission also freed more than 750 slaves.

Tubman is credited not only with significant leadership responsibilities for the mission itself, but was also able to calm the slaves and keep the situation under control. It was reported that General Rufus Saxton reported the raid to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton saying that to the best of his knowledge the success of the mission represented the only military command in American history where a woman irrespective of race led, originated, and conducted the raid. Tubman used her nursing skills and her knowledge of herbs to bring relief to the soldiers suffering from dysentery, a condition that also confronted Nightingale. Tubman learned this remedy during her years living as a slave in Maryland.

Tubman’s experience was in sharp contrast to the experience of Florence Nightingale who, as a nurse to British soldiers fighting to defend the powerful Ottoman Empire, was actually helping to maintain a slave society in that part of Europe and Asia - society that existed into the early 20th century. The Crimean Khanate within the Ottoman Empire had become a major slave exporting region. It raided the surrounding neighbors of Eastern Europeans, Ukrainians, Poles, and Caucasians among others, exporting them throughout the Empire. Black slaves imported from Egypt were forced to become eunuchs to serve their owners’ families.

Both Florence Nightingale and Harriett Tubman travelled very different roads in service to mankind and both have left a legacy worthy of celebration as we consider the contributions of our modern-day nurses.


James Z. Daniels, MPA, MSc, is a consultant and writer who lives in Durham, NC.