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We've been hearing a lot lately about how we should all wash our hands to avoid spreading the flu. And while such commonplace advice might seem a bit silly coming from national leaders, there was a time when the simple practice of hand washing did need a strong advocate.

We can thank Florence Nightingale, whose birthday is this week, for being the champion of sanitation reform in the Victorian era. Ms. Nightingale took a hardy band of nurses to the Crimean War, and the filthy conditions she discovered in British field hospitals shocked her and inspired a lifelong crusade.

While known primarily as the compassionate military nurse, dubbed the "Lady With the Lamp" by wounded British soldiers, her lasting contribution to society was her lifelong campaign to promote sanitary practices such as hand washing.

Photograph: Florence Nightingale/courtesy Library of Congress

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