Florence Nightingale (1820 - 1910)

Undoubtedly Florence Nightingale will always be associated with nursing and of being “the lady of the lamp” - a reference to her work with the British army during the Crimean War. Did you know that she also contributed to mathematics, especially statistical analysis?

In a time when most women were expected to be less educated than men, specialising in all those really useful techniques for looking after a husband, family and home, Nightingale was an exceptional woman.

She was born in Florence, Italy while her parents were on a two year tour of Europe, a year after her sister Panthenope (the Greek word for Naples - her birth-place). Their father, William Edward Nightingale was educated at Cambridge, and felt that his daughters should have as much of an interest in real education as he had been able to achieve. So far so good. But there was a snag: he urged his daughter to study more appropriate subjects (female subjects!), like history or philosophy.

Nightingale’s preference was for mathematics, but her mother did not approve. After much pestering, her parents granted permission for a mathematical tutor to be engaged.

To understand Nightingale’s interest in mathematics, we first need to understand how her involvement in nursing led to her pioneering use of statistical analysis.

During the mid nineteenth century nursing was not considered suitable for a woman like Nightingale. Once again she fought her family and won.

In 1849 Nightingale toured hospitals in Europe and Egypt, studying their different ways of working. Upon returning to London a few years later, she took an unpaid job at an ‘Establishment for Gentlewomen during illness’.

The Crimea War began in 1854, with Britain, France and Turkey allied against Russia, and although the Russians were defeated later that year it was not long before criticisms began appearing in the British press about the medical conditions in the field hospitals. Nightingale and a small group of nurses were asked by Sidney Herbert, The Secretary for War, to oversee nursing requirements in military hospitals.

Conditions in these hospitals were appalling, with the wounded lying on bare floors and in seriously unhygienic conditions; it was of little surprise that Cholera and Typhus were rampant, and were the root cause of mortality rates being seven times higher than a soldier dying on the battlefield.

By collecting and organising the data on mortality rates, and using her mathematical skills, Nightingale was able to prove that by improving sanitary conditions, delivering fresh water supplies, providing better food and purchasing the necessary equipment, that the mortality rates would reduce.

From late 1854 to early 1855, these improvements helped reduce the mortality rate from 60% to approximately 42%, and by Spring of that year the rate had fallen to an impressive 2%.

Without these changes, and even with new recruits joining the war, these replacements would not have been sufficient to overcome the unnecessary deaths occurring - it would have resulted in disease killing the whole of the British army!

Her statistical work convinced the military authorities and Parliament to carry out her proposed hospital reforms - leading to the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army, in 1857. She so impressed the Royal Statistical Society that she was elected a Fellow, in 1858 - the first woman given that honour.

During the American Civil War, Nightingale was a consultant on army health to the United States government. She also responded to a British war office request for advice on army medical care in Canada. Before her death in 1910, Nightingale was to receive an Honorary membership of the American Statistical Association (1874), received the Royal Red Cross medal in 1883 from Queen Victoria, and was the first woman to receive the Order of Merit from King Edward VII in 1907.