Florence Nightingale saved more lives with her math than her nursing

There is a problem in all the STEM (science, technology, engineering,and mathematics) disciplines with women not getting credit for the work they do. Florence Nightingale is most famous for her service in the Crimean war where she was the nursing supervisor of a cohort of nurses she trained. The image of the “lady with the lamp” checking wounded soldiers throughout the night is iconic. Until relatively recently, her contributions with the greatest impact were largely ignored.

  • Nightingale excelled at the graphical presentation of statistical
    data. She made clear, for example, that preventable death from disease and infection were more deadly than enemy fire to the soldiers in the Crimean war or to the Imperial Armies in India.
  • She invented the polar area diagram (also called the Nightingale rose diagram) for displaying data gathered over time and made extensive use of pie charts, a commonplace today but a great innovation in her time. This was part of her effort to get her discoveries implemented as changes in practice.
  • She wrote extensively on good sanitary and medical practice, supported by statistical analysis, in plain and clear English to permit her good advice to reach the largest possible number of people.
  • She led a lobbying effort to make various forms of sanitation, such as connection to sewer mains, mandatory in private houses in English cities. She also promoted and obtained new sanitary regulations not only for soldiers in India but for all Indian subjects.

The practical effect of Nightingale’s work was to provide statistical tools used to this day, to document the importance of sanitation and antiseptic techniques so that the meanest intellect was forced to concede the point, and the establishment of the profession of nurse as it is understood today.

Until fairly recently, she was credited with being an angel of mercy, but not with the status of statistical and medical pioneer and innovator.

It is almost impossible to emphasize the degree to which the improvements in sanitation that Nightingale spearheaded improved the human condition. The statistical tools she developed during the Crimean war convinced her that cleaning up and disinfecting hospitals, hooking up households to sewer mains, and getting every possible person to kick their personal hygiene up a notch would have far more impact than medical research on disease. Her efforts were an important part of increasing the average human life span in England by twenty years between 1871 and the mid-1930s. How to you properly credit someone with saving millions of man-years of life?


Clearly, Florence Nightingale was an extraordinary individual. A key element in realizing her potential was her father, a wealthy landowner, who taught her Italian, Latin, Greek, philosophy, history, writing, and mathematics. It is really hard to tell how many women with this level of potential fell by the wayside for want of basic training available to almost any upper class man of the time. It is also tricky to estimate the wasted human potential among the poor of both sexes in Nightingale’s era. Both these problems continue in the present day.

While there are exceptions like Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace that were recognized for their work roughly when they did it, there are numerous female scientists who’s work was only recognized far after it was performed. Barbra McClintock’s work on transposable element, begun in the forties, was recognized in the late sixties when it was rediscovered by other scientists. She went, slowly, from being mocked for her “jumping genes” to the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer, was probably an unrecognized co-discoverer of the structure of DNA for which Watson and Crick received a Nobel in 1962. It gives one cause to wonder about the female researchers who got so little credit that Occupy Math cannot find them.

I know my mother did extensive editing of my father’s scientific papers and textbook for which she received no credit. Those who have read Robert Heinlein’s classic young adult novel Have Space Suit, Will Travel will recognize that the professor that marries his star pupil is a literary trope. That star pupil is, of course, female, and is quite likely an uncredited collaborator. My wife and I have fourteen joint publications at the time of this writing, she has taken techniques we worked out and applied them to excellent work that I did not have a part in, and she has a substantial body of work that is her own. The world is getting better, bit by bit. Please send us example of uncredited women who do STEM research. Share them in the comments!  I hope I see you here again.

Dan Ashlock
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada


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