Lady with the logarithm: four lessons from Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale saved more lives with her grasp of numbers than she did with her gift for nursing, writes Alan Finkel.

Miss Nightingale in the Barrack hospital at Scutari, c.1880
Florence Nightingale in the barrack hospital at Scutari, c.1880.
English School / Getty

Who am I?

I was born in 1820 into a wealthy and well-connected British family. As a child, my hobby was building statistical tables, in which I captured trends in the vegetable output from our garden.

At my request, I was tutored in mathematics for two hours every day. I became a maths tutor myself, before applying for a position as a Superintendent in the British military.

I was deployed to the battlefield, where I collected extensive data on soldier mortality rates. And this formed the basis of an 850-page report that I published in 1858. My report saved countless thousands of lives by prompting major reforms in hospital practice.

I helped to establish the International Statistical Congress and I served as a data consultant to the US Army in the American Civil War. I also invented the polar area diagram, and I pioneered the infographic.

I was elected to the Royal Statistical Society. And here’s a big clue: I became the first female member at the age of just 38. I died a legend amongst statisticians at the age of 90.

I am, of course, Florence Nightingale: mathematician.

Yes, Florence Nightingale — the Lady with the Lamp. She ought to be the Lady with the Logarithm. She saved far more lives by her grasp of numbers than by her gift for nursing. And she put data at the heart of healthcare as we know it today.

So throw out your history books, I am correcting the record! Florence Nightingale is henceforth our patron saint of mathematics. And I will pay my personal tribute by drawing out four lessons from her story to guide us today.

Lesson 1: maths is critical

Imagine a world without maths. You have to cast your mind back more than 5000 years, to a world barely crawling from the Stone Age. Take away numbers, and you take away commerce, farming, medicine, music, architecture, cartography, cooking, sport … and every other activity we’ve invented since 3000 B.C.

The first thing you looked at today was probably the time. The second was probably the temperature. The third, perhaps, the nutrition panel on the side of the cereal box.

There is nothing so disempowering as ignorance of the numbers like these that make it possible to navigate our world. Never forget, the weakest person in a negotiation is always the person who can’t add up in their head. Maths is the language of science. Maths is the language of progress! Maths is the pre-requisite for learning, and for life. And no-one knew it better than Florence Nightingale.

Lesson 2: learning maths is hard

It is hard in the sense that it demands our early persistence. Learning in maths is a continuum — always building the next lesson on the skills mastered in the lessons before. To fall behind is often to stay behind. And to drop out in school is to kneecap your opportunities in later life. It is very difficult to retrofit the mathematics foundations into your brain at university, if you have failed to develop them in school.

I understand the temptation for schools to lighten the content in the maths curriculum, in the dubious belief that easy things are more attractive to students, and any maths is surely better than no maths. I also understand the incentives that lead students to study maths at a level below their true ability. But a lighter load is really a heavier burden: it is the burden of low expectations.

Florence Nightingale understood this reality from an early age. She didn’t consider herself to be naturally gifted in maths, but she did believe she had the capacity to learn. And so she refused to settle for the level of maths education thought fitting for girls of her time. She demanded from her parents the support to raise herself to something higher: something that would make it possible to participate fully in public life.

She should be our role model for the education of all students: regardless of gender, regardless of postcode, regardless of cultural background and regardless of family income.

And surely, the most effective way to raise expectations in schools is to start at the endpoint of the education continuum: that is, start with universities. Implement maths prerequisites in all the courses that need, you know, a grasp of maths! At a stroke, we would signal to principals at primary and secondary level that they simply can’t afford to drop the ball. Maths has to be a priority for every student, from kindergarten to graduation. But that brings me to …

Lesson 3: compulsion is not enough

Some children seem to fall in love with maths at birth and, like Florence, are hungry to be taught. Others need help to turn an arranged marriage with maths into a genuine passion. That is the role of the teacher: to make a subject not just compulsory, but compelling. But, of course, it is very difficult for any teacher to inspire a passion that they don’t feel themselves. It is also extremely disrespectful to the teaching profession to discount the time, the talent and the training that it takes to teach maths well.

Maths teachers should, in the first instance, be experts at maths. It’s that simple — and yet, it seems, that hard. In far too many schools, out-of-field teaching remains the norm; peer networks are thin; and professional development is an impossible dream. We seem locked in to a cycle of poor outcomes and diminishing expectations: passing on to each generation of teachers, students, and parents the frustration we feel ourselves. Entrenched practices are hard to break; and they are demoralising to report.

But just because the problems run deep, that does not mean that we should shy from solving them. Which brings me to my …

Final lesson from Florence: using evidence to make a difference

Imagine the situation Florence Nightingale confronted in the Crimea. Everyone knew that, in a war, soldiers get shot. Everyone knew that people who are shot tend to die.

What they didn’t know was that the vast majority of deaths in the Crimean war weren’t caused by wounds at all — they were caused by diseases like cholera and typhus. And so military leaders didn’t implement the basic sanitary precautions in field hospitals and military barracks that would save lives by stopping the spread of disease.

Florence Nightingale saw the problem — but she needed her own ammunition. So she counted the dead, collected the data, and displayed it in a polar area diagram. It was a credible and compelling display of the causes of death.

And suddenly the problem was crystal clear. It was fixable. That is how a woman — a nurse — took on the top brass of the British military and won.

Think of Florence Nightingale the next time you feel that speaking up for meaningful reform is like the Charge of the Light Brigade: riding nobly into the Valley of Death. Evidence can give leaders the impetus and the confidence to act. But it can only do so if we present it in an actionable form.

It cannot just be a statement of problems. It cannot just be a statement of demands. It has to be written, and read, as a statement of opportunities. Only then can it point us to solutions.

So here’s to Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Logarithm.

Let’s remind this country that there’s strength in numbers. Let’s commit to starting maths education early. To keeping it going. To treating our education system as a continuum. To keeping the bar of student aspiration high. To helping students clear the bar. To fighting the incumbency bias. And above all, to taking our research beyond observations, into the realm of solutions.

This article was first presented on Ockham’s Razor on ABC Radio National.

Alan finkel 2014b.png?ixlib=rails 2.1
Alan Finkel is an electrical engineer, neuroscientist and Chief Scientist of Australia.
Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles