Single-Minded: A Look at the Lives of Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton

Two women, born in 1820 and 1821 respectively. One known for her nursing work in the Crimean War, the other for hers in the Civil War. One nicknamed the “Lady with the Lamp,” one the “Angel of the Battlefield.” One the founder of modern nursing, the other the founder of the American Red Cross.

Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton: two women from the same time period who were both so well known for their nursing that it can be hard to distinguish between the two. The goal of this post is to introduce you to them if you haven’t heard about them before and to point out some key similarities and differences between their lives and work.

They even looked a little bit alike...see?

They even looked a little bit alike…see?

First of all, though . . .

Fun Facts

Florence Nightingale, born during her parents’ three-year honeymoon to Europe, was named after her birthplace: Florence, Italy.

Clara Barton’s full name was Clarissa Harlowe Barton . . . perhaps named after the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, published 1748?

Thanks to her father’s desire to educate his daughters, Florence studied history, philosophy, ethics, grammar, writing, and mathematics, and learned to speak Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian.

Before her nursing career, Clara Barton founded one of the first free public schools in Bordentown, New Jersey.

Florence’s last paper was read at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

During the Civil War and later when she served as a nurse in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, Clara traveled by mule train.

And now, for a quick set of comparisons and contrasts.

Both women were famous nurses during the 1800s.

Yes, I realize this is fairly obvious after my opening paragraphs—founder of modern nursing, founder of the American Red Cross, etc.—so I’ll move right along.

But, they served on different continents, in different wars, with different manners.

Florence Nightingale served primarily in Europe, during the Crimean War. After being appointed to introduce female nurses into the military hospitals, Florence took 38 female nurses to Barrack Hospital in Turkey in 1854. Soon, she took on administration responsibilities, as well as nursing duties. It was during this time that she earned her nickname, “the Lady with the Lamp,” from the soldiers she cared for.

She continued to work toward reform in army nursing for the rest of her life. For a few years, she focused on sanitation reform in India, and then transitioned to a focus on overall nursing reform and women’s progress in her later life. In general, she seems to have been content to work quietly in the background, avoiding or overcoming any conflicts through dedication and kindness.

Clara Barton is best known for her work in the United States during the Civil War. She preferred to work independently, refusing to join the official nursing team overseen by Dorothea Dix. Appalled by how many soldiers died because they didn’t receive medical care quickly enough, she organized her own way of bringing medical supplies and food to the injured—a group of volunteers traveling by mule train. Because of her work, she was eventually appointed as the head nurse of corps hospitals in Virginia.

After the war, she worked to reunite wounded or missing soldiers with their families and also took a two-year tour around the country, delivering 300 public lectures on her war experiences. Exhausted, she took a journey to Europe and discovered the International Red Cross, which eventually led to her development of the American Red Cross. She continued to do humanitarian work for the rest of her life and wrote two books about her experiences: A Story of the Red Cross and A Story of My Childhood.

Clara was much more independent than Florence and liked to run things her own way. Later in life, her “dictatorial” leadership style led to discontentment among American Red Cross board members. Eventually, Congress insisted that the organization have less centralized control. Clara resigned shortly afterward.

Both remained single, dedicating their entire lives to serving others.

Florence took a vow of chastity and obedience to God in 1850, and though she received two marriage proposals, she didn’t accept them, choosing to make service and nursing her greatest callings in life.

None of the articles I read mentioned Clara receiving any proposals, but even if she had received them, I’m fairly certain she would have rejected them. Her continuation of humanitarian work well into her 70s speaks strongly of her determination to dedicate her life completely to serving others.

But, they became nurses for different reasons.

Faith was probably Florence’s biggest motivator in becoming a nurse. She received her first call from God in 1837 and began taking on a more active role in serving the poor. Her second calling came in 1849, after which she took her vow of chastity and obedience to God. She pursued her calling to serve the sick and poor wholeheartedly for the rest of her life, despite the initial disapproval of her parents and the disdain of her society toward female nurses. By all reports, she worked diligently, efficiently, and quietly, showing kindness and compassion toward all her patients.

Clara’s first experience with nursing came when her older brother, David, fell ill after a dangerous fall during a barn raising (read the full story here, pages 77-87). This seems to have been the inciting moment for her life of service. She took up teaching shortly after this and transitioned to nursing during the Civil War. There, she served with little regard for her own life, once narrowly escaping being shot when a bullet hit the wounded man she was attempting to help. Despite the horrors of Bull Run and Antietam, Clara continued helping others however she could for the rest of her life.

And a quick conclusion . . .

After my research, I’m blown away by these two women. During a time period which expected women to stay at home and quietly raise their families, Florence and Clara broke social norms by not only remaining unmarried but by stepping into the men’s world of nursing, battles, and blood. And through their efforts, they changed the world.

When I reflect on what they did and accomplished, one phrase keeps resurfacing in my thoughts: “single-minded.” No, I’m not referring to either of their relationship statuses, but to their mindsets. These women had one goal. One passion. One purpose. To serve others.

I can’t help but think that if more people today followed their examples, the world would be a better place.

Who has inspired you through a single-minded life of service?

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