The scientists who inspired us (II): Florence Nightingale

In honour of Women in Science, at the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics - BCAM we have come up with the idea of sharing some stories about the women that inspired our researchers to pursue a career in science. The second one joining this initiative has been our PhD student Lore Zumeta. Keep reading to find out how Florence Nightingale inspired her journey in mathematics:

About the author:

Lore Zumeta

PhD student


Lore is preparing her doctoral thesis within the Applied Statistics group at BCAM. Her project is focused on semi-parametric regression techniques for time-to-event high dimensional data with applications to complex data analysis in sports injuries prevention.

Florence Nightingale is one of the women who have inspired me. It hasn’t been many years since I discovered her figure. The first time I heard of her was in the subject of Statistics, in the University. The life and lifestyle she led at that time, her contributions, are really outstanding. Nearly two centuries on, her contributions retain its great value and importance. For example, the importance of hygiene and handwashing.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was an English social reformer, statistician and nurse, considered a pioneer of modern nursing. She was born in Florence (Italy), to a wealthy British family, and was named after the city of her birth. Nightingale had to oppose the convictions and prejudices of the family and those around her. When she was young, her desire was to learn mathematics, but her parents did not see it as a good thing; later she decided to become a nurse, and again, she received her parents’ refusal. However, she maintained her desire to be a nurse. She had a great ability to combine two disciplines, nursing and statistics, apparently two unconnected areas. The integration of both disciplines was a major breakthrough. She was far ahead of her time understanding the importance of health data.

She worked as a nurse in the Crimean War, without putting aside her love of mathematics. She created a novel polar area diagram, also known as the coxcomb diagram because of its appearance. This graph represented the number of deaths during the Crimean War. Specifically, it showed the number of deaths from different causes, then for each cause of death, the area of a circle was drawn, with this area being proportional to the number of deaths. Thanks to this way of representing the data, she realized that more soldiers died in hospitals from infectious diseases, typhus, dysentery and typhoid, than from war wounds. This information was crucial in reporting the lack of hygiene in hospitals and in convincing the members of the parliament, other authorities, and also Queen Victoria, about promoting hospital and social reforms.

Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the East by Florence Nightingale. Public Domain.

Nightingale’s legacy is great. She laid the groundwork for professionalising the nursing roles at St. Thomas Hospital in London, her work has inspired the creation of the Red Cross and her mathematical knowledge, its application in the field of epidemiology and health has led to great advances. In 1859, she was elected the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association, in 1874. She also was the first woman to receive the Order of Merit in Great Britain in 1907.

This 2020 is Florence Nightingale’s bicentennial year and several initiatives have been launched all over the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared 2020 as the “International Year of Nurse and Midwife“.

At BCAM I work in the applied statistics research group. To some extent, like Nightingale, we apply statistics in the health field. I use statistics to investigate injuries in football and to analyse which factors are involved in the injury mechanism. I model the loads and injury incidences considering different survival analysis techniques. The amount of data is considerable and here collaboration and interdisciplinarity are key to managing and understanding it. For the future, the identification of these risk factors is of great importance to achieve greater knowledge, as well as to have a greater number of tools to prevent injuries.


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