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Mathematical Treasure: Letter by Florence Nightingale

Anna Bargagliotti (Loyola Marymount University) and Rebecca Nichols (American Statistical Association)

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) made significant contributions to statistics. In 1856 she worked as a nurse in a British military hospital in Turkey, where she collected large amounts of data. Her analyses revealed that sanitary practices were a major culprit for the mortalities in the hospital. She drew on the data to help with decision-making with respect to hospital practices. Living in a time before the availability of computers, she created beautiful visualizations of circular yearly data in a coxcomb diagram. The coxcomb represented the months of the year and the proportion of data within each month. 

Copy of 1875 letter by Florence Nightingale.

Nightingale has long been touted as a role model for female statisticians. For her tremendous contributions to the field of statistics, the American Statistical Association (ASA) elected her as an honorary member on October 16, 1874. A copy of her response letter, dated January 30, 1875, still proudly hangs at the ASA headquarters in Alexandria, VA. The original response is part of the ASA records held by Iowa State University Special Collections and University Archives

For more on Nightingale's statistical work, see “Mathematical Treasure: Florence Nightingale’s Statistical Report on British Army Mortality,” Convergence (February 2023), and Charlotte Bolch and Beverly Wood, "Seeing and Understanding Data: A Mini-Primary Source Project for Students of Statistics," Convergence (December 2018).

Index to Mathematical Treasures 

Anna Bargagliotti (Loyola Marymount University) and Rebecca Nichols (American Statistical Association), "Mathematical Treasure: Letter by Florence Nightingale," Convergence (September 2019)