Monday Maths: Mathematical (Role) Models Part 3

Today’s mathematical role model is a woman I can really respect.  She wanted a career in a particular field, and was told that only men could do that.  So she went out and snuck in the back door, and ended up saving lives while doing it.

Her name was Florence Nightingale David.  (Not related, although she was named after the famous one.  For reasons of not being confusing she is generally referred to as “F.N. David”.)

So what did she want to do?  F.N. David wanted to be an actuary.  (Those of you who know me will understand why I like her.)  But, in the 1930s, actuarial firms only hired men.  Presumably because they were run by silly people.

A statistical aside

The membership statistics for the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, for 2011-12 (I couldn’t find any more recent ones) show that the bias towards men is still evident, although improving.  The whole profession is only 30% females, although for student (i.e. younger, newer) members the percentage increases to 37%.

Interestingly, the percentage of people qualifying who are female was 40% in 2012, which implies that girls are more likely to actually finish the exams than boys.

But back to the point

F.N. David wouldn’t give up, though.  She already had a maths degree, and went on to get a doctorate from University College London.  One of her lecturers wouldn’t answer her questions because she was a woman.  Undeterred, she sat next to a man and made him ask all her questions for her.

The real work began during World War II.  She went to work for the Ministry of Home Security, creating statistical models of the consequences of bombs exploding in certain areas.

There’s an actuary in our office who spends most of his time doing this (I work in life insurance, in case you were wondering!).

F.N. David knew how likely it was that the bombs would damage buildings and what the estimates of human injury would be, and as a result vital services – fire brigade, water supplies, communications, and so on – were kept going during the blitz.  Who knows how many lives those models saved?

Unlike many women who worked in the fields of science, F.N. David was recognised by her peers.  In 1992 she was the first recipient of the Elizabeth L. Scott Award,

“For her efforts in opening the door to women in statistics; for contributions to the professions over many years; for contributions to education, science, and public service; for research contributions to combinatorics, statistical methods, applications and understanding history; and her spirit as a lecturer and as a role model.”

She even has her own award now, administered by the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies.  The criteria for the award are excellence in the following:

  • As a role model for women
  • Statistical research
  • Leadership of multidisciplinary collaborative groups
  • Statistics education
  • Service to the profession

Something to do

Do you know anyone who deserves an award?  Do you know anyone who deserves to have an award named after them?

Ask your unit to make up their own award and present it to someone!


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