The knowledge of history that we grow up with is often slightly askew of the truth. Florence Nightingale wasn’t the first person to realise that unsanitary conditions were killing more troops than the enemy: people like James Barry had already figured that out. Neither did she save thousands of lives by walking around at night with a lamp: Mary Seacole’s contribution to morale was probably larger, with the added benefit that she actually went to the Crimea.
No, Florence Nightingales’ contribution came later, when she returned to the UK and put her celebrity status to good use, managing to bring about real change, like Princess Diana many years later changing attitudes to AIDS. In collaboration with an epidemiologist called William Farr, she devised various graphical ways to represent the facts and figures that had been painstakingly collected at the military hospital in Scutari. The most famous of these was the “coxcomb” chart showing the various causes of death of soldiers during the conflict. These days we’d do it in Excel and we’d call it a Polar Area Chart.
Florence Nightingale may not have invented the field of medical statistics, but she was probably the first person to use it to such great advantage. And think how long that chart would have taken her: she’d have loved Excel.