Florence Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820, in Florence, Italy to Frances Nightingale and William Shore Nightingale. She was the younger of two children. Nightingale’s affluent British family belonged to elite social circles. Her mother, Frances, hailed from a family of merchants and took pride in socializing with people of prominent social standing.
Despite her mother’s interest in social climbing, Florence herself was reportedly awkward in social situations. She preferred to avoid being the center of attention whenever possible. Strong-willed, Florence often butted heads with her mother, whom she viewed as overly controlling. Still, like many daughters, she was eager to please her mother.
Florence’s father was William Shore Nightingale, a wealthy landowner who had inherited two estates—one at Lea Hurst, Derbyshire, and the other in Hampshire, Embley Park—when Florence was five years old. Florence was raised on the family estate at Lea Hurst, where her father provided her with a classical education, including studies in German, French and Italian.
From a very young age, Florence Nightingale was active in philanthropy, ministering to the ill and poor people in the village neighboring her family’s estate. By the time she was 16 years old, it was clear to her that nursing was her calling. She believed it to be her divine purpose.
When Nightingale approached her parents and told them about her ambitions to become a nurse, they were not pleased. In fact, her parents forbade her to pursue nursing.
During the Victorian a young lady of Nightingale’s social stature was expected to marry a man of means—not take up a job that was viewed as lowly menial labor by the upper social classes.
When Nightingale was 17 years old, she refused a marriage proposal from a “suitable” gentleman, Richard Monckton Milnes. Nightingale explained her reason for turning him down, saying that while he stimulated her intellectually and romantically, her “moral…active nature…requires satisfaction, and that would not find it in this life.” Determined to pursue her true calling despite her parents’ objections, in 1844, Nightingale enrolled as a nursing student at the Lutheran Hospital of Pastor Fliedner in Kaiserwerth, Germany.