florence nightingale was a statistician

Just a quick post as I’m away on a panel meeting & my brain is tired – but here’s something else from my file of ‘things I didn’t know’: Florence Nightingale was a statistician.

Now, I heard all about Florence Nightingale when I was a kid. She made a major contribution to the development of nursing as a profession, and saved large numbers of British soldiers during the Crimean war through her insistence on good hygiene in the hospital wards. “The Lady with the Lamp” & all that. But what these stories didn’t tell us was how she managed to persuade the medical profession of her day that she was right & they were wrong. After all, she was a) a woman & b) had no training or (to begin with) reputation in the field.

The answer, as I’ve discovered through reading Ernst & Singh’s book Trick or Treatment (on which I must write more, another time, but you can read Amazon reviews here) is that she was able to marshall statistics in support of her claims. It turns out that Florence’s papa was a very progressive gentleman (for Victorian times), who insisted that she should receive a proper education. This included mathematics along with languages & history. His daughter put this to good effect, producing a large body of data that clearly demonstrated how soldiers under her care did better than those receiving the conventional treatments of the day. She also showed that professional nurses provided better care than the more usual untrained attendants. When doubters pointed to an apparent higher mortality rate among her trained nurses’ patients, Florence was able to show that this was because her nurses were receiving patients who were already seriously ill; when this was taken into account, the professionals came out well ahead.

Statistics were then, & remain, a very powerful tool of science – anyone considering studying the sciences should also give serious consideration to a side helping of stats 🙂

But I must get back to the book, I’m sure there are more intriguing things for me to learn!

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  • For statisticians, educators, students and researchers: I have put one of the most comprehensive link lists for hundreds of thousands of statistical sources and indicators (economics, demographics, health etc.) on my blog: Statistics Reference List. And what I find most fascinating is how data can be visualised nowadays with the graphical computing power of modern PCs, as in many of the dozens of examples in these Data Visualisation References. If you miss anything that I might be able to find for you or if you yourself want to share a resource, please leave a comment.

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