Mathematicians who changed the world: Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

2 min read

Florence Nightingale – the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ – is famous to most for her contributions to nursing and hygiene, but did you know she also made a major contributions to maths as well? In fact it was maths (and statistics particularly) that helped her transform the practice of nursing.

When she was growing up, Florence Nightingale was taught maths by her father, and enjoyed making tables recording the contents of her vegetable garden. This was the start of her love for statistics. As she grew older, she enjoyed reading statistics about public health and hospitals, which is where she saw herself working in the future.

When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Nightingale took a group of nurses with her to help in the hospitals. However, when they got there Nightingale was shocked at the state of the hospital – and the record-keeping! Many people know that this is when Nightingale began changing the conditions of hospitals and nursing men back to health, but not many know she did this thanks to statistics.

Nightingale published a book that provided statistical evidence to show just how much of the mortality was due to the hospital conditions. She also collected lots of statistical data during her time at the hospital, which was later analysed and used to improve public health and welfare. florence-nightingales-polar-area-diagramAfter returning from the war, Nightingale began her work reforming the Army Hospital system. It was during this time that Florence Nightingale developed her ‘Polar Area Graph’, something we recognise as a modern ‘cyclic histogram’. This graph was a circle, split into 12 sections that each represented a month of the year. In these sections, parts were coloured in depending on the percentages of deaths due to wounds, infections, or other causes. This meant that even those who did not know how to interpret statistical data could look at the graphs and easily see what was happening.

Thanks to Florence Nightingale and her statistics, the government were convinced that deaths were preventable with the proper sanitation. Eventually, statistics came to be seen as an important tool to work out what was happening – and why it was happening – and is widely used today.

Polar Area Graphs like Florence Nightingale’s became tweaked and better known as the Pie Charts we commonly use today. So why not try our Pie Chart starter activity? Or, as a challenge, find out the months that your classmates were born in and make your own Polar Area Graph?  

Article by Tom Minor

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