Fathers of Datavisualization: Florence Nightingale 1820-1910

Florence Nightingale was born May 12, 1820 and named after her birthplace of Florence, Italy. Her parents expected her to make a good marriage and live a wealthy woman’s life at home, but Florence knew she had a higher calling. Nursing was considered a working woman’s profession, but her parents eventually relented in 1851 and allowed her to train as a nurse in Germany for three months. By 1853, Florence was the superintendent of a gentlewoman’s hospital. However, when the Crimean War began a year later, the British war minister at the time asked her to oversee a team of nurses in military hospitals in Turkey. There was a desperate lack of proper medical facilities for wounded British soldiers at the frontlines, yet Nightingale managed to significantly improve conditions and reduce the mortality rate.

Florence returned to England in 1856 to continue her work. In 1859, she published Notes on Nursing, which quickly became the the classic introduction to nursing for beginners. Some experts even describe Florence as the mother of modern nursing, as her book served as a foundation of nursing basics. Florence was an advocate for improved care and conditions in both military and civil hospitals in Great Britain, and she wrote multiple books on the subject. She went on to found the Nightingale Training School for nurses at St. Thomas Hospital in London. Nightingale taught her pioneering theories to young nurses who, in turn, travelled to hospitals all over Britain to put them into practice. Many of these practices are still in existence today.

Not only was Nightingale a pioneer in the field of nursing, she also was a gifted mathematician and pioneer of statistical graphs and the visual presentation of information. To convey the need for her proposed and practiced improvements in the nursing profession, Nightingale created the above datavisualization, entitled “Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the East". It was published in Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army in 1858 and sent to Queen Victoria. This is known as the polar area diagram, or sometimes the Nightingale rose diagram, a graph of Florence’s own design, which is an equivalent of the modern circular histogram. It details the seasonal sources of patient mortality in the military field hospital she managed, including deaths from wounds, preventable diseases, and other causes.

Nightingale produced many other statistical diagrams so that members of Parliament and other civil servants would be able to understand the plight of soldiers in hospitals during war and peacetime. She also created a comprehensive statistical study of sanitation in Indian rural life to convince the Royal Commission to approve improved medical care and public health services. Her efforts were incredibly successful and in 1859, Florence became the first female elected to the Royal Statistical Society.

Florence Nightingale passed away on August 13,1910, having both established a strong foundation for modern nursing and demonstrated the usefulness of datavisualization in a new field.