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Friday, 15 Sep 2017

This is one article from the September 2017 edition of Inside OR, our monthly periodical available in digital and print formats to current members of the OR Society. ORS Members may sign in to see the full issue.

By Nigel Cummings

On 2 July this year, at the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (MERGA) conference, Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel spoke about Florence Nightingale’s contribution to mathematics.

Florence Nightingale, OM, RRC, DStJ was born in 1820, in Florence, Italy. She was a born mathematician insomuch that, even as a child, her hobby wasbuilding statistical tables in which she captured trends in the vegetable output from the family garden. In later years she requested tutelage in mathematics and studied the subject for two hours every day. She actually became a maths tutor herself, before applying for a position as a superintendent in the British military. Then the career advancement that made her famous occurred: she was deployed to the battlefront as a nurse in charge, a battlefront where she collected extensive data in soldier mortality rates.

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Whilst the visits to the soldiers in wards at night were essential to monitor progress and administer additional medical
support, Florence also used these ‘rounds’ to collect statistical data on her hospital patients.

The data she collected formed the basis of an 850 page report that was published in 1858. That report is said to have saved thousands of lives by prompting major reforms in hospital practice. As her nursing career began to wind down she helped to establish the International Statistical Congress, and served as a data consultant in the US Army in the American Civil War.

At the age of 38, Florence Nightingale became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and Dr Finkel said that rather than being dubbed the “Lady of the Lamp” she should perhaps be renamed as the “Lady with the Logarithm”, because she saved more lives by her grasp of numbers than by her gift for nursing and she put data at the heart of healthcare as we know it today.

Dr Finkel said, “She should be known as the patron saint of mathematics”. He said Florence Nightingale “understood the incentives that led students in the study of maths… She understood the reality of maths from an early age and did not consider herself to be naturally gifted in maths, but she did believe she had the capacity to learn, and so she refused to settle for the level of maths education thought fitting for girls of her time. Instead she demanded from her parents the support to raise herself to something higher, something that would make it possible to participate fully in public life.”

Nightingale was not alone in her passion for numbers though. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, even politicians were using statistics to floor their opponents. What was unusual in these times was that a woman would enter the field of mathematics and produce work that could actually make a difference!

Everyone knew that in a war soldiers get shot. Everyone knew that people who were shot tended to die. What they didn’t know was that the vast majority of deaths in the Crimean War weren’t caused by wounds at all – they were caused by diseases like cholera and typhus. Regrettably military leaders didn’t implement the basic sanitary precautions in field hospitals and military barracks that would save lives by stopping the spread of disease.

With her medical skills, analytical mind, knowledge of mathematics and statistical derivation Florence Nightingale saw the problem but she needed her own ‘ammunition’ to prove her theories. She manufactured it in the form of data which she was then able to present graphically to her male ‘superiors’ and prove her case – she used the polar area diagram method to display her statistics she had so painstakingly gathered.

Her work delivered credible insight and clear, compelling displays of the causes of death, and the opportunities afforded to reduce mortalities. Suddenly the problem was no longer too abstract to be ignored. Those who saw her work and the graphical displays she produced became able to understand that the problems of mortality in field hospitals were fixable, lives could be saved.

Dr Finkel went on to say, “That is how a woman – a nurse – took on the top brass of the British military and won.” It was all done with mathematics and, what is more, perhaps the next time we think of Florence Nightingale it should be as a mathematician rather than solely a nurse.

“Evidence can give decisionmakers in all these communities the impetus and confidence to act. But it can only do so if we present it in an actionable form. It cannot be just a statement of problems. It cannot be just a statement of demands. It has to be written, and read, as a statement of opportunities.

“In many respects the redoubtable Ms Nightingale could be regarded as an early Operational Researcher, like her, we operate and provide solutions by delivering evidence which we derive from data utilising a vast array of tools at our disposal. Like her we present our evidence to stake holders and decision makers. Like her we make a difference!”

Read more about Florence Nightingale at: and

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