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Florence Nightingale - nursing pioneer and…data scientist?

Florence Nightingale is considered the mother of nursing - the lady with the lamp who comforted many soldiers in Constantinople. But turns out, she might be one of the earliest "data scientists".
Ankit Gordhandas
Ankit Gordhandas
March 9, 2021
Data Visualizations
Updated on:
March 9, 2021
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Social reformer, nursing pioneer, healthcare crusader are among the many epithets that come to mind when we think of Florence Nightingale. Data scientist is likely not one of them. But Nightingale was truly a data scientist before data science was a field.

Healing in Constantinople

To understand more, let’s travel back in time. The year is 1854. Britain, along with her allies has been engaged in a bloody war for a better part of the past year – the Crimean War. Thousands of British soldiers have been sent to the Black Sea. Around 18,000 have already been admitted to hospitals, and there’s no end in sight to the conflict.

Nightingale receives a letter from the Secretary of War, Sidney Herbert, requesting her to assemble a corps of nurses to take care of the sick soldiers. She rises to the occasion – quickly assembling a group of 38 nurses and setting sail for the war zone.

Nothing could have prepared Nightingale for what awaited her at the military hospital in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). Cleanliness was a pipe dream. Patients lay in their own excrement; rodents, bugs and other creatures roamed around freely; stretchers were strewn around the hallways.

The famed nurse got to work right away, she tended to the soldiers and nurtured them back to health. She also went about setting cleanliness standards around the hospital. By the end of the war, it was estimated that her work reduced the number of deaths by two-thirds, earning her the title “the Angel of Crimea”.

Crusade through data

But her work did not stop there. She was so incensed by what she saw, that she meticulously collected data related to soldier deaths throughout her time in Crimea. She wanted this data to have an impact. To make sure that the information she wanted to convey would stir the consciousness of those consuming it, she presented it in the form of visualizations. The most famous of these is perhaps the “Rose chart” [fig 1],  where she definitively showed that more soldiers died of “mitigable zymotic diseases” than of “wounds”.

Similarly, her bar chart [figure 2] demonstrated that soldiers, even in peacetime, were dying at rates almost double compared to those of similarly aged civilian males, thanks to the poor sanitation in barracks. To drive home the point, she said, “…[I]t is as criminal to have a mortality of 17, 19 and 20 per 1000 in the Line Artillery and Guards in England when that of civil life in towns is only 11 per 1000…”

Like a true data scientist, Nightingale carefully collected data and analyzed it. And then, she presented her findings in a manner that had the most impact – 1857 saw the establishment of the Royal Commission for the Health of the Army. Similarly, her work led to a general understanding of hygiene among the civilian population. Patients started receiving bedpans, clean sheets and fresh bowls to eat from. She later implemented similar reforms in overseas barracks as well.

All because she cared about carefully presenting the data.

In fact, in August 1857, she would write in a letter, “Whenever I am infuriated, I revenge myself with a new diagram.”

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