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Florence Nightingale - A Hero Of Data

Florence Nightingale (12 May 1820 – 13 August 1910) - A Hero of Data

If you research any detailed and reputable references to Florence Nightingale, she is described with words such as “social reformer”, “statistician”, and the “founder of modern nursing”. Her ongoing work was founded on data and ways of presenting it to those in power.

She is more popularly known as “The Lady with a Lamp” but this epitaph, while describing one of her honourable activities, was not of her making and was promoted by political and media efforts to make the Crimean War appear heroic.

In reality, Nightingale’s approach was grounded in what she learned in her youth: mathematics, language, philosophy, and religion.

“The Lady with a Lamp” was an expression that American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used in his poem ‘Santa Filomena’ written in 1857. It was written in Nightingale’s honour shortly after the Crimean War, and describes her work in Scutari Hospital. Two of the versus from the poem emphasise her activity of walking through the hospital at night to comfort the sick.

Lo! in that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering gloom,
And flit from room to room.

A Lady with a Lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land,
A noble type of good,
Heroic womanhood. (1)

But this narrow and somewhat patronising approach has been challenged by many including Dr. Lucy Worsley, chief curator at the historic Royal Palaces said:

“She was formed into the heroine of a war that needed a hero. She was made out to be this very sort of nursey, goody, goody, kind, touchy feely lady going round, wiping the fevered brows of soldiers….

“But what that tends to overshadow is the hard-working professional who worked for 50 years to establish an integrated health system, a blueprint for a proper health system that finally came into being. 40 years after her death, with the establishment of the National Health Service (2)

Despite this oversimplified portrayal of her work, Florence was overwhelmingly lauded in her life and after her death.

In 2001 and 2008, however, the BBC released documentaries that were critical of Nightingale's performance in the Crimean War, as were some follow-up articles published in The Guardian and the Sunday Times. (3)

Nightingale scholar Lynn McDonald has dismissed these criticisms as "often preposterous", arguing they are not supported by the primary sources (3).

The death rate at the hospital where she worked to heal Crimean soldiers was indeed bad, but we only know this because she measured the rate as well as the causes of the death. This collection of data was essential because she found that the majority of deaths were not due to war injuries but communicable diseases.

It has been concluded that ten times more soldiers died from illnesses such as typhustyphoidcholera, and dysentery than from battle wounds.

Nightingale not only collected data but applied statistical methods to help understand its true meaning and developed ways to present it in a graphical form that highlighted its meaning.

She is famous for using the polar area diagram, also called the Nightingale rose diagram, equivalent to a modern circular histogram.

Even her devout beliefs were grounded in her measurement of what was happening on the ground: “To understand God's thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measure of his purpose.” (4)

She is an example of a data hero because she specifically put aside opinions and sought to measure the facts even if the results were uncomfortable. In this way, she identified the real causes behind the facts, and then developed strategies based on what the numbers were really saying.

Her life is an example for all professions that have had to battle political and media whims, vague generalities about a problem, numbers that might represent the resultant activities but do not get to the causes of problems, and poor communication techniques that fail to engage with the people you are supposedly trying to help or workers on the front line, lobbying for selfish reasons, or taking actions for personal praise.

She is a hero because of her commitment and drive to help others and the way she laid the foundation of her approach on good data, proper analysis and clear presentation of the results


1.Florence Nightingale Museum

2.Wikipedia - Florence Nightingale

3.Florence Nightingale - BBC great lives. Radio Broadcast from 2013

4.Goodreads Florence Nightingale  - Quotes



John Reid

Managing Director, Austraffic

From the beginning of his career in local government and then when he established Austraffic in 1983, John realised that data collection is not just about numbers but about understanding people and the activities that serve the community's needs.  Poor or even bad data is counter-productive.  Even if results fit our preconceived ideas that doesn’t mean it is accurate. John has seen how good data expands our perceptions and thinking and can be surprising in its results. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

John Reid