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Florence Nightingale and the Red Cross

Florence NightingaleFlorence Nightingale carried out pioneering work during the Crimean War (1853-1856) to improve the care of sick and wounded soldiers. 

She introduced women nurses into military hospitals and set up kitchens to provide suitable diets for the invalids. She also provided recreational facilities for convalescents and improved the distribution of supplies.

These principles became the basis for the way the Red Cross worked in later wars.

Her early influence on our work

Florence Nightingale was determined to achieve the best for the patients in very difficult conditions. Her work proved an inspiration to the founder of the Red Cross Movement, Henry Dunant. 

Dunant’s own later experiences at the Battle of Solferino in 1859 led to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863, the creation of the first Geneva Convention, and eventually to the setting up of Red Cross societies of trained volunteers in countries throughout the world.

But much of Dunant's work was inspired by Florence Nightingale.

The Red Cross principle of neutrality, which continues to guide our work today, was closely related to Florence Nightingale's beliefs on suffering. 

She said: “Suffering lifts its victim above normal values. While suffering endures there is neither good nor bad, valuable nor invaluable, enemy nor friend. The victim has passed to a region beyond human classification or moral judgments and his suffering is a sufficient claim."

On a visit to London in 1872, Henry Dunant said: “Though I am known as the founder of the Red Cross and the originator of the Convention of Geneva, it is to an English woman that all the honour of that convention is due. What inspired me to go to Italy during the war of 1859 was the work of Miss Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.”

She also directly influenced the establishment of the British Red Cross in 1870. She encouraged the leading men of her day to set up the organisation but also stressed the difficulties of working in military hospitals. She said that those who volunteered to serve in them must be “not sentimental enthusiasts but downright lovers of hard work.”

After the British Red Cross was set up, she became a member of the ladies committee and continued to take an interest in Red Cross work until her death in 1910.

Her legacy

Training nurses

Illustration of Florence Nightingale and woman caring for sick manOne of Florence Nightingale's greatest achievements was to raise nursing to the level of a respectable profession for women.

In 1877 the War Office decided to increase the number of women nurses employed in military hospitals after perseverance by Florence Nightingale in the face of official opposition. Her training scheme had been practiced in 1869 at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley near Southampton, which became a significant Red Cross hospital.

Nurses from Netley helped sick and injured soldiers in South Africa during the Zulu War of 1879. The following year, the War Office agreed to the British Red Cross' request  to train a small number of nurses to be prepared for future emergencies. On 1 May 1881, eight women reported for training at Netley. They were forerunners of the many thousands of women who worked in hospitals during war and peace.

World Red Cross Day

Until 1934, World Red Cross day was celebrated on 12 May, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. The British Red Cross Journal stated in 1931: “The choice of 12th May, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birthday, as Red Cross day throughout the Empire is appropriate, not only because the spirit and ideals that inspired Miss Nightingale are those of the Red Cross, but also because in the life of one and the history of the other there are salient resemblances.”

We now celebrate 8 May, the birthday of our founder, Henry Dunant, with a whole week of fundraising. 

Honouring her legacy

Florence Nightingale sitting writing lettersAt the Eighth International Conference of Red Cross Societies in London in 1907, each delegate was presented with a copy of a letter from Queen Alexandra noting Florence Nightingale's efforts on behalf of suffering humanity. Florence Nightingale herself also sent a letter expressing interest in the conference and hopes for their success. 

The King awarded her the Order of Merit in recognition of how fully her life’s work had been identified with the spirit of the Red Cross Movement, and the delegates decided to create a commemorative International Nightingale Medal to be awarded to ladies distinguished in the nursing field.

Florence Nightingale died at the age of 90 on 13 August 1910 but, as the delegates of the 1907 Red Cross conference said, her "heroic efforts on behalf of suffering humanity will be recognised and admired by all ages as long as the world shall last”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross instituted the Florence Nightingale medal in 1912, to be awarded annually to nurses who had given exceptional care to the sick and wounded in war or peace. This medal is still awarded today.

Read more about our founding


WWI exhibition at Florence Nightingale Museum

A cross-shaped pin showing an ambulance for Our Day fundraising event

See what our volunteers took to the western front in an exhibition about nursing in the First World War.

WWI exhibitions >