The Lady with the Graph

As we celebrate the 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale this week, it is time to let go of our romantic notions of a do-gooder with a lamp in one hand, soothing the fevered brows of soldiers with the other—a visual firmly ingrained in most of our heads, thanks to illustrations from our textbooks.

Of course she did that! She was very hands-on and did make rounds of the soldiers’ wards night and day, to care for them.

But she was much more.

She was a statistician par excellence, and in 1860, was elected the first woman Fellow of the Statistical Society.

Her meticulous approach to collecting data and analysing it, at a time when even deaths were not properly tallied in the war hospital where she worked, led to a better understanding of the situation and to reducing deaths. For instance, analysis by her and statisticians appointed by the British Government led to the conclusion that 16,000 of the 18,000 deaths in her hospital were not due to battle wounds but to preventable diseases, spread by poor sanitation. By using applied statistical methods, she effectively made the case for bringing in better hygiene practices, and thus saving lives. (Early example of evidence based policies, which won the Noble Prize this year!)

AB931E80-8551-4152-98DC-257E5EE9C79FFlorence was also one who shook up systems and brought in systemic changes. She battled with entrenched bureaucracies most of her working life, in order to bring about these changes. She was aware that it would be difficult to convince decision makers of the need for change, and maybe out of this requirement was born what is today counted as her major contribution to statistics—the first infographics ever made. The best-known of the infographics she invented are what are called the “coxcomb” diagrams, understandable by even the public. ‘The coxcomb is similar to a pie chart, but more intricate. In a pie chart the size of the ‘slices’ represent a proportion of data, while in a coxcomb the length which the slice extends radially from the center-point, represents the first layer of data. The specific organization of Nightingale’s chart allowed her to represent more complex information layered in a single space. In her coxcomb during the Crimean War, the chart was divided evenly into 12 slices representing months of the year, with the shaded area of each month’s slice proportional to the death rate that month. Her color-coding shading indicated the cause of death in each area of the diagram.’*

There are many who believe that if she were around today, she would have brought very strong statistical analysis of The COVID situation to bear on policy making, and advocated for solutions based on pure, hard evidence (the implication obviously being that today’s solutions are not fully there!). But it is the duty of the present generation to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and do the needful! No point in wishful thinking.

We in this country also have to thank her for her campaign for clean drinking water, famine relief and sanitary conditions in India—based on statistics and data she collected.