Monday Maths: Mathematical (Role) Models, Part 4

Today we’re looking at someone who is famous, and was a mathematician, but is not famous for being a mathematician.

Florence Nightingale.

Florence Nightingale (Public Domain image)

I’m always entertained by what “everyone knows” about famous people.  In this case, “everyone knows” that Florence Nightingale was a nurse, and was famous for being a nurse and looking after people during a war.  Most people aren’t sure which war, when or where.  She is often called the “founder of modern nursing” – but often people don’t think about what that actually means.

Florence became a nurse in 1851, against the wishes of her parents.  They thought (which was true at the time) that hospitals were dirty, horrible places.  Anaesthetic was not a common thing, so it wasn’t pleasant.  However, Florence believed she was called by God to do service to others, and so she persisted.  She started at a hospital for “invalid gentlewomen”, which was probably somewhat nicer than what was to come.

Florence was a nurse during the Crimean War, which was from 1854 to 1856, and involved Britain, France and Turkey, vs Russia.  The reasons for the war aren’t really important for what we’re discussing, but were mostly to do with the rights of Christians in the Holy Land and the decline of the Ottoman Empire.


When she arrived, with 38 other nurses, the field hospitals were overcrowded and dirty.  Rats, blocked drains, men lying on the floor and mouldy bread to eat.  She got to work cleaning the place up, believing (quite sensibly) that dirty, ill-fed men would not recover.

At first, she believed that the nutrition and over-worked doctors were the source of the high death rates.  It wasn’t until the drains were cleared and hygiene improved that the death rate started to fall significantly.

The changes that she brought about caused lasting improvements to the healthcare system.

But what does this have to do with maths?

All the time Florence was working in the hospitals, she was collecting data.  Statistics on numbers and causes of deaths, among many others.  She became a pioneer in graphical representation of statistics.  She brought into common use the pie chart, now familiar to most people, and is credited with the invention of the polar area diagram.

Causes of Mortality (Public Domain)

She used those diagrams to explain her work to those in the government who wouldn’t be bothered with, or wouldn’t understand, pages of statistics or reams of words, and was therefore able to get funding for many improvements to medical care.

All this from an upper class Victorian woman, whose role in life was supposed to be marriage and children.

Something to do

Washing your hands before treating a patient was one of the radical reforms brought in because of Florence Nightingale’s work.  Why not try this:

Cover the hands of one Brownie in glitter glue.

Now, have all the Brownies move around the hall shaking hands with people.  After a couple of minutes stop them and find out how far the “germs” have spread.

Each Brownie should now wash her hands.  You can do this blindfolded to find out how well they wash their hands!


2 thoughts on “Monday Maths: Mathematical (Role) Models, Part 4

  1. From what I’ve read of Florence Nightingale, she’d be mighty irked that her name has come to be associated with the ‘lady of the lamp’ image of ‘ministering womanliness’, rather than her actual can-do practical and pushy self 🙂

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