Mathematicians who changed the world: Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

3 min read

Florence Nightingale, or ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, is most famous for her contributions to nursing and hygiene – but did you know she also made major contributions to the field of maths?

In fact, it was maths – specifically statistics – that helped her to transform the practice of nursing! 

Florence’s early life

When she was growing up, Florence Nightingale was educated about maths by her father. She enjoyed making tables recording the contents of her vegetable garden, which was the start of her love for statistics!

As she grew older, she enjoyed reading statistics about public health and hospitals. In 1851, she trained to become a nurse in Germany. 

The Crimean War

When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Nightingale and a group of nurses went to help in the hospitals. When they arrived, Nightingale was shocked at the state of the hospital – and the record-keeping!

Florence vowed to help improve hospital conditions, using statistics to help her do so. She published a book which used statistical evidence to prove that low mortality in hospitals was due to the poor conditions.

As well as this, she also collected lots of other statistical data during her time at the hospital. This was later analysed and was used to improve public health and welfare.

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After the war


After returning from the war, Nightingale began her work reforming the Army Hospital system.

It was during this time that Florence Nightingale developed her Polar Area Graph, something we recognise as a pie chart today!

This graph was a circle which was split into 12 sections, with each representing a month of the year.

Each section was coloured-in depending on the percentages of deaths due to wounds, infections, or other causes. This meant that even those who did not know how to interpret data could easily see what was happening.

Florence's contributions to mathematics 

Thanks to Florence Nightingale and her statistics, the government were shown that deaths were preventable with proper sanitation. Statistics came to be seen as an important tool to work out what was happening in hospitals and in society more generally. This technique is still widely used today!

Florence's Polar Area Graphs were also tweaked and become better known as the pie charts we use today. If you'd like to see a pie chart in action, why not try our pie chart activity? Or, why not make your own Polar Area Graphy by finding out the months that your classmates were born in!  

Article by Tom Minor

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