Florence Nightingale

“I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse.”

Quick Facts

Born: 12th May 1820 in Florence, Italy

Died: 13th August 1910 in Mayfair, London

Nationality: British

Religion: Christian

Occupation: Nurse and Statistician

Childhood and Education

No doubt, you will have heard of the legendary nurse throughout your history lessons at school. Some call her the ‘Lady of the Lamp’ – Florence Nightingale – what a pretty name! ‘Yes, but how does she relate to mathematics?’ I hear you ask. Well, Nightingale made her mark in history during the Crimean War when she drastically improved the hygiene standards in hospitals saving countless lives and introducing a new era of modern nursing. So how do you think she discovered the importance of these hygiene regulations? Stats! Yes, that’s right. As if she couldn’t get any more amazing, she was also a keen statistician, something I think we can all enviously admire. Didn’t see that one coming ey? Or maybe you did… I dunno.

The youngest in a wealthy and elite family, Florence was fortunate to have a rather privileged education. She excelled in her studies of classics, foreign languages and politics but in particular loved mathematics and after begging her disapproving parents (apparently maths wasn’t a ‘ladylike’ subject!) she became Sylvester’s most renowned student, later a tutor herself. This clever young girl received little support for her greatest aspiration – to become a nurse. Her parents frowned upon the idea, expecting her to do more with her academic talent and social stature than waste it away in a poorly respected, drunken old lady’s job – as it were seen at the time. Ha! See? Parents don’t always know best! Bet they wouldn’t be saying the same today. As a Christian, Florence already held firm values which gave her a passion for helping the sick and poor. She strongly believed that God had given her life so that she could perform this Earthly duty. Some say she followed in the footsteps of her Grandfather – a truly honourable man who campaigned against slavery.


A slightly awkward soul, Florence was strong willed, determined and courageous above all else and continued to pursue her goals into her early adult life. In 1851, she enrolled on a 3 month training course for nursing in Dusseldorf, Germany. Two years later, she took an unpaid (!) nursing job at a hospital in Harley Street, London, later being promoted to superintendent after being recognised for her outstanding performance. Woo, yeah! Go Florie! You prove those haters wrong. Alongside this role, Florence volunteered at another hospital, assisting with a cholera outbreak. Here, she witnessed how unsanitary conditions could exacerbate the spread of disease.

The Crimean War broke out in 1853 and by the following year it was clear that many more soldiers were disease ridden from devastating conditions with a shortage of medical supplies. Banding together a team of nurses, Florence set off to Turkey to manage the military nursing operation under invitation from the Minister for War, Sidney Herbert. Following a power battle between herself and the military officers at the British base hospital (FYI – this was the birth of girl power, not the spice girls!), Florence eventually gained full control and immediately swung into action. Her unfaltering compassion saw her working 20 hours a day, making sure the wards were scrubbed top to bottom, employing workers to clear the drainage and a chef to prepare nutritious meals for the patients, implementing a laundry system to ensure all linen was kept clean, writing letters home to soldiers’ families and checking in at night with her famous lamp. With the end of the Crimean War in 1856, so came the end of her service there and Florence left having reduced the death rate by two-thirds and returned to Britain a hero – ‘the Angel of the Crimea’. Notably modest, Florence preferred to keep to herself and bury her head in the crowd so wasn’t too keen on the royal welcome home! Oh Florie, don’t you see? You’re extraordinary!

Results of her work today are evident in ward designs, infection control measures and healthy diet campaigning as well as the practice of midwifery which became a specialist nursing field after she founded a School of Midwifery at King’s College Hospital. Possibly most relevant to our subject, Florence was responsible for the creation of the ‘Nightingale coxcombs’ or ‘roses’ as a way of representing data efficiently, specifically mortality rates. These diagrams were constructed using circles divided into twelve segments each representing a month so that the data could be extrapolated annually. The area of each segment was proportional to the number of mortalities for the given period. It worked under the assumption that the observed mortality rate would be consistent throughout the year. Florence obtained the ‘annual rate of mortality per 1000 in each month’ using the formula 12000D/S where D is the number of soldiers who died of disease and S is total number of soldiers. You can see an example of her diagrams below:

Influenced by Quetelet, her innovative discoveries paved the way for medical epidemiology. Somewhat unconventional and ahead of her years in her thinking, she used her graphic creations to explain the complex statistics in a simpler way to government. This was a huge triumph as she was able to prove that many soldiers’ deaths could be attributed to the unsanitary conditions of the hospitals rather than their war induced injuries.

Awards and Achievements

As a gift for her service, Florence was presented with the ‘Nightingale Jewel’ from Queen Victoria along with £250,000 from the government which funded the launch of her very own training school for nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital. Was she the real superwoman?! It was this in fact, that influenced the revelation of nursing to be a reputable occupation for women across the social classes. Well, it was about time don’t you think? Florence authored hundreds of prominent publications still referred to today on hospital and nursing standards and organisation. They introduced vast improvements and professionalism in the health care sector, even prompting a complete remodel of the War Office’s admin department.

Although Florence lived to the ripe old age of 90, sadly she was mostly confined to her bed from the age of 38 after contracting Crimean fever, a bacterial infection she could never fully recover from. However, did this stop our Florie? ‘Course not! She is superwoman after all. Strong as an ox, Nightingale fought on, working from her bed – a champion of health care reform, a spirited consultant on public sanitation and hospital management worldwide. In 1909, Florence became the first female to be awarded the Freedom of the City of London not long after being granted the very prestigious Order of Merit by King Edward.

As well as earning her the title of first female elect to the Royal Statistical Society, Florence’s accomplishments also inspired the establishment of the International Red Cross who named the ‘Florence Nightingale Medal’ for remarkable nurses in her honour. Yeah. So stick that up your pipe and smoke it! Just three months before her death, she received special 90th birthday wishes from King George! Not such a bad way to see your last years out huh? Quite literally honoured by Kings! True to her nature, Florence was laid to rest quietly and privately with her family in Hampshire, England.

Rest peacefully Florence – you’ve earned it. May God reward you in the afterlife (if you believe in that sort of thing).


  1. https://www.biography.com/people/florence-nightingale-9423539
  2. http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/resources/biography/?v=79cba1185463
  3. http://www.mathscareers.org.uk/article/five-famous-female-mathematicians/
  4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/famouspeople/florence_nightingale/
  5. http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Nightingale.html
  6. http://www.datascope.be/sog/SOG-Chapter5.pdf
  7. https://understandinguncertainty.org/node/214