©Wellcome Library, London

In 1854, at the height of the Crimean War (1853-1856), The Times correspondent, William Russell reported from the British base at Scutari that ‘Not only are there not sufficient surgeons ... Not only are there no dressers and nurses ... There is not even linen to make bandages'. Florence Nightingale offered her services to the Secretary at War, Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), with whom she was acquainted. In November, she arrived at Scutari with 38 nurses, mostly from religious orders, to care for nearly 2000 sick and wounded soldiers lying in foul, rat-infested wards. Hers was basically a clean-up campaign, and 300 scrubbing brushes were requisitioned for the first onslaught. She described herself as a ‘General Dealer in socks, shirts, knives and forks, wooden spoons, tin baths, tables and forms, cabbages and carrots, operating tables, towels and soap'. Within 6 months, and with the help of an additional 80 nurses, the death rate at Scutari had dropped from about 40% to 2%. On her return to Britain in August 1856, she was greeted as a national heroine.

Coloured lithograph by William Simpson (1823-1899), London 1856.