Spirit of Lady with the Lamp shines on today – Dr Siobhan O’Connor

This year marks an auspicious year for nurses around the world, as they celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the world’s best known and most influential nurse. Born in London in 1820, she became known as the “The Lady with the Lamp” due to her work caring for wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War (1853 - 1856). She made many other notable contributions to nursing and public health, setting up the first secular nursing school at St Thomas Hospital in London and using her statistical expertise to pioneer data visualisations and lobby government to bring about improvements in sanitation and hygiene, helping reduce infections from diseases and improve human health. As the world grapples with the coronavirus, her legacy and the work of millions of nurses in countries across the globe is crucial in providing a frontline response to this ongoing pandemic.

Unofficial blue plaque commemorating Mairi Chisholm
Unofficial blue plaque commemorating Mairi Chisholm

This year has been designated Year of the Nurse and the Midwife by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with an international campaign to acknowledge and celebrate the contribution nurses make to healthcare while advocating for more investment in the nursing workforce. At the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Young Academy of Scotland (YAS), we have been engaging with the public over a number of years to raise the profile of nursing. Our work is interdisciplinary and one of our key strategic themes is “Healthier” to identify and tackle health and wellbeing challenges. One of these challenges is to ensure a strong nursing workforce in Scotland and beyond in the wake of Brexit.

Our Brexit Impact Report published in September 2018 highlighted that there could be shortages in the number of nurses in the UK, as those who come from Europe and further afield may choose not to do so if stricter immigration policies and unfavourable employment rights and working conditions proliferate. In addition, several YAS members contributed to an RSE response to the Scottish Parliament’s 2018 Inquiry into the Impact of leaving the EU on Health and Social Care in Scotland. The RSE’s response highlighted the implications for safely staffing the NHS with enough nurses, doctors and other health professionals.

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YAS has also showcased innovative nursing research and its potential to improve health as part of the Scottish Parliament’s current Scotland 2030 programme. We created a short film called Our Future Scotland that captured people’s vision for the future across education, wellbeing, the environment and technology. Public figures including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and actor Brian Cox took part to share their views.

Florence Nightingale on the night round at Scutari hospital, c. 1855 (Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/gsp4wk9m)

Lis Neubeck, a professor of cardiovascular health at Edinburgh Napier University, also discussed her work using novel technologies to diagnose heart conditions and the potential to have virtual nurses supporting people to be healthy at home.

As well as looking to the future, YAS celebrated nurses from the past who have made important contributions to human health. In November 2018, to mark the centenary of Armistice Day, Dr Diane Atkinson, a writer on women’s history, read excerpts from and answered questions about her book Elsie and Mairi Go To War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front, which focuses on nursing heroes during the First World War. The book charts the journey of a Scottish woman, Mairi Chisholm, and her English friend, Elsie Knocker, who treated thousands of soldiers on the front lines in Belgium. This event was accompanied by a public exhibition, jointly run by YAS and the RSE, and the storytelling event can be viewed in full on the RSE’s YouTube channel. More recently, unofficial blue plaques were created to commemorate women in STEM, with one honouring Mairi Chisholm on display at the University of Edinburgh.

As nurses make up a significant proportion of the health workforce – approximately 40 per cent in Scotland and more worldwide – investing in nursing education, professional practice, and research is worthwhile as nurses play a vital role in providing many types of health services in hospital and the community. At YAS, we are committed to bringing together young professionals from all sectors to work together on initiatives that benefit Scotland and the wider world. In this Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, we reiterate our support for nurses and call for more investment in this key professional group to help Scotland build a healthier future.

Dr Siobhan O’Connor, Lecturer in Nursing Studies, the University of Edinburgh

Dr Siobhan O’Connor, Lecturer in Nursing Studies, The University of Edinburgh

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