Florence Nightingale: Of Myths and Maths

By Joy Lisi Rankin

The way we tell stories about women matters. The way we remember women matters. Until recently, if you had asked me what I remembered about Florence Nightingale, I would have told you about her tireless work as a nurse. I would have said nothing about her tireless work as a mathematician, mainly because I had never learned about it. The mythology built around Florence Nightingale, nurse, demonstrates how and why the gendered stories that we tell about the past matter very much in the present.

Until recently, my Nightingale mythology centered on her work as a devoted nurse. In this story, she courageously left behind the creature comforts of her elite English home life to tend to British soldiers during the Crimean War. She braved dirt, disease, and death to cure and comfort all of those daring, dashing young British men. In this grand narrative, she remained unmarried throughout her life in order to better serve as the virginal caretaker, a model of chaste womanhood. Her gentle and caring manner and the warmth of her personality—these are the characteristics that earned her the moniker “The Lady with the Lamp.” I am confident that this is the Nightingale story that you remember, too.

Certainly, the general historical framework for this story is accurate. But, the omission and reinterpretation of key details has served to perpetuate the norm of nursing as a pink-collar profession, in which practitioners have had second-class status compared with their doctor colleagues—who have been predominantly men. Indeed, Nightingale did care for ailing and injured soldiers during the Crimean War. In doing so, she challenged the social norms of upper-class Victorian England, which dictated that—as a woman—she should remain a dutiful daughter and then wife, with little unsupervised contact with men. In her own time, Nightingale’s parents resisted her efforts to pursue a nursing vocation. Her desire to help others initially made her an iconoclast, not a heroine.

Similarly, Nightingale’s rejection of marriage has been mythologized as the ultimate sign of her devotion to nursing and nation. But really, she was flat-out rejecting marriage as a social institution. Moreover—and this is important—she had the means to make that choice. Nightingale hailed from a wealthy and distinguished British family. Her grandfather served as a Member of Parliament for several decades. She grew up on two large family estates and frequently visited London. Social and financial affluence afforded her the opportunity to safely reject marriage at a time when most women who did not marry struggled to support themselves for the rest of their lives.

Nightingale received several marriage proposals, all of which she declined. Instead, she chose to live with women companions over the course of her life. Some Nightingale scholars have debated whether or not she was a lesbian, but I think that debate masks a far more significant point. I want to underscore that Nightingale’s choice was queer. She rejected the gendered sexual politics of Victorian marriage, and she chose to live with other women on her own terms. She defied the dominant social and cultural norms of 19th-century English society, and she relentlessly pursued her own passions and interests.

Focusing on Nightingale the nurse has also obscured, indeed, almost completely effaced, Nightingale the statistician. Nightingale’s mathematical and intellectual abilities manifested from an early age. By age ten, she had created tables that displayed data about the fruits and vegetables produced in her family’s gardens. She eagerly studied an album of pressed flowers that she received from Margaret Stovin, an expert botanist and a family friend. Her father, who had earned his education at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge, began teaching her formal mathematics when she was eleven. As a young woman, she requested—and received—private lessons in mathematics from a Cambridge-trained mathematics tutor. And, her family socialized with prominent British intellectuals of their day, which enabled Nightingale to meet the polymath Charles Babbage.

Nightingale was a talented and creative statistician. She returned from the Crimea having collected extensive data on soldier mortality rates. She began a long collaboration with British statistician William Farr with the goal of reforming the British Army Medical Service, including hospitals. One of Nightingale’s analyses revealed that British soldiers aged 25-35 had a mortality rate twice as high in military hospitals compared to civilian life. Another analysis showed that soldiers were far more likely to die at home or abroad during peacetime than they were during wartime because of the wretchedly unhygienic and unsanitary conditions in cities.

Nightingale completed her 850-page book Notes on Matters Affecting Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army  in two years, toiling "sometimes for twenty-four hours out of twenty-four” to complete it. Her statistical analyses, combined with her vocal calls for change, ultimately propelled major health and data collection reforms in both military and civilian hospitals. Crucial to her efforts were her illustrations that made these numbers compelling to the politicians with the power to implement reform.

Nightingale transformed data visualization. She realized that pages and pages of tables of numbers would not be nearly as arresting as a picture. She developed the graphic method known as the polar area graph to convey information about causes of death during the Crimean War. Nightingale’s circular graph was divided into twelve sections, one section for each month of the year. The twelve wedges spread out at varying distances from the center with the length of each wedge corresponding to total army mortality rates per month. Each of the twelve wedges was then divided into three colors: blue representing deaths from contagious diseases such as cholera and typhus, red representing deaths from wounds, and black representing deaths from all other causes. At a glance, Nightingale’s polar area graph cogently conveyed that the vast majority of deaths were from contagious diseases, which were largely preventable.

Nightingale saved many more lives with her mathematical work after the war than with her on-the-ground efforts in the Crimea. To be sure, she also transformed nursing education and helped professionalize the nursing profession. But, we should acknowledge and remember the other factors, like her social sphere and her unmarried status, that contributed to the success of her statistical reforms and her nursing reforms.

Nightingale was very well-connected with ready access to Queen Victoria after the war. Her active and ongoing choice to remain unmarried provided her with the time and energy to pursue her reforms—time and energy that otherwise would have been devoted to raising children and running an affluent household. And notably, after serving in the Crimea, Nightingale herself was often ill. She remained in bed for extended periods of time. She labored to protect and preserve her own health while improving the lives of others.

The Royal Statistical Society elected Nightingale as their first woman member in 1858. The American Statistical Association designated Nightingale an honorary foreign member in 1874. Victorian England celebrated Nightingale’s mathematical prowess. Yet, most biographers since have highlighted Nightingale’s selfless devotion to her nursing patients. They have reinscribed the 20th century status of nursing as a job for which a “desire to help” or “caring demeanor” was the primary requisite rather than showcasing a profession that required rigorous and extensive medical and scientific training.

These storytelling choices all matter. Emphasizing the nurse and not the mathematician flattens Nightingale. Interpreting her single status as devotion to patients and profession instead of acknowledging the determination and difference behind her unmarried status diminishes her.

The prevailing mythology of the “Lady with the Lamp” presents a milquetoast nurse-helpmate. All too often, our stories create one-dimensional women. Honoring and remembering Nightingale as an intelligent, resolute, and queer polymath—mathematician, data visualizer, reformer, educator, nurse, colleague, companion, sister, daughter—gives us a nuanced and multifaceted heroine. We should seek that complexity in women’s stories and histories, embrace it, and share it.

Joy is an Assistant Professor of the History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science at Michigan State University, holding appointments at Lyman Briggs College and James Madison College. Her current book A People’s History of Computing is under contract with Harvard University Press. 
Contact: @JoyMLRankinjoyrankin.com