Florence Nightingale as a Mathematician


Florence Nightingale is best remembered for her work as a nurse but she also did work as a mathematician, specifically a statistician. She led the way in establishing revolutionary methods of displaying information through charts and graphs. She is credited with creating the Polar Area Diagram, which worked somewhat like a pie chart to represent statistics. She used this to show the number and ratios of the causes of deaths at war, which persuaded those in charge to make life-saving differences in the battle hospitals. She also used her own funds and resources to promote and produce some of these benefits, such as cleaner water and healthier food for the patients. Through her work as both a mathematician and a nurse she paved the way for women to explore jobs and opportunities that had formerly been exclusively reserved for men. She encouraged women to pursue their dreams and callings, but warned against extremism, in other words, she did not advocate that women pursue particular tasks that men did for the simple reason that men did them.

The road to Florence Nightingale’s success was not an easy one; it was plagued with many struggles and uphill battles which she overcame in order to be able to accomplish what she did. As a child, both of Florence Nightingale’s parents, William Edward Nightingale and Frances Smith Nightingale, encouraged her to study diligently and to become an educated individual. Her father himself schooled Florence Nightingale and her sister, Parthenope, for most of their education. They did not, however, either encourage or even allow her to pursue her calling to mathematics. Nightingale pleaded that her parents “let her study mathematics instead of doing worsted work and practicing quadrilles” (Lipsey). They did eventually give in and she was tutored by several professional mathematicians, including J.J. Sylvester. Florence Nightingale believed wholeheartedly in what she did. To her it was not only a logical area of study but a spiritual calling on her life from God. This was not the only area of Nightingale’s life in which she implemented her strong religious convictions. She was convinced that she was one that God “… had clearly marked out… to be a single woman” (O’Connor). Through her selfless contributions to the medical sciences and mathematics, and clear dedication to her spiritual calling to care for the poor and the sick, she opened a door for future Christians to establish a worldwide aid organization, the International Red Cross.

Nightingale had hundreds of publications including Notes on Nursing, Notes on Hospitals, and Notes on Nursing for the Labouring Classes. Her hard work eventually paid off and she was awarded the Royal Red Cross from Queen Victoria and the Order of Merit from Edward VII, became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association, and had the Crimean monument erected in honor of her augmentations to the war.

I found Florence Nightingale’s life to be very interesting and inspiring for several reasons. One of these being her determination and perseverance. Early in life she recognized an interest that turned into a passion, heard the calling on her life to pursue her dream, and did what was necessary to accomplish it. Although her parents, her peers, and society all told her that she could not be a mathematician because it was inappropriate and impractical for a woman, she patiently fought for what she believed in.

I can identify with Florence Nightingale’s life in a couple of different ways. First, she was homeschooled, as was I. I, too, found that homeschooling provided me with extended opportunities to pursue my interests and dreams, both academically and spiritually. Secondly, she was a very religious person, and I have not only attended and been intimately involved in church for my whole life but I am also very close to God. Just as Nightingale believed in following God and His will for her life, this is an important emphasis in my life as well. The way that she listened to His call and did what she had to in order to follow His lead is an inspirational example to me. It encourages me to also be willing to give what it takes in order to accomplish the callings that God has placed upon my life.

Florence Nightingale proved to me that I, too, can follow my dreams and become who I want to be. She provided an ideal example of a woman who successfully accomplished her goals despite harsh criticism and a hostile society towards female involvement in mathematical arts. She is an encouragement to women and men alike to follow whatever their passion and desire is for their life and overcome the inevitable hardships that will stand in the way of their success.


Lipsey, Sally. Mathematical Education in the Life of Florence Nightingale. 2 July 2010. Web.
http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/night_educ.htm. 1 November 2010.
O’Connor, JJ, and Robertson, EF. Florence Nightingale. October 2003. Web.