Data Science

Is the Lady with a Lamp, the first Data Scientist?

When we hear the name Florence Nightingale or the lady with the lamp, the first thing that comes to our mind is...

Written by casperlak · 2 min read >
Is the Lady with a Lamp, the first Data Scientist?

Florence Nightingale

When we hear the name Florence Nightingale or the lady with the lamp, the first thing that comes to our mind is nursing. She was known as the mother of modern nursing. It is said that she pioneered in establishing nursing as a profession. She was also famous as a social reformer and a statistician.

Florence nightingale was born 200 years ago, on 12th May 1820 in Florence, Italy, into a wealthy British family. It is said that her parents strongly endorsed women’s education, and therefore she got the opportunity to study History, Mathematics, Italian, Classical Literature and Philosophy.  She had displayed remarkable ability in collecting and analysing data.

Data Analysis

During the period of the Crimean War (1853-1856), she was sent to Scutari Hospital in Turkey to serve as a nurse for the wounded soldiers. The mortality rate at that time was 42.7%. She collected, recorded and analysed data. Her notebook was always full of numbers, tables and diagrams. Her number-crunching ability enabled her to show that deaths were not solely due to the wounds, but due to the unfavourable conditions of the hospitals. She found that the hospitals were not even at basic sanitary needs. Her analysis helped to identify that the causes for deaths were overcrowding, lack of ventilation, drainage, lack of cleanliness and hospital comforts. These findings led to a phenomenal change in healthcare reforms. It is said that after her sanitary reforms, the mortality rate was declined to a rate of 2.2%. This may be the first-ever evidence-based healthcare study in history.

Data Visualization

The chart in the above image is called a “coxcomb”. With the help of William Farr, she has created this chart to explain the causes of the deaths in the army. This chart is somewhat similar to the pie chart but seemed to be more informative than a pie chart. In a pie chart, a segment represents the proportion whereas, in coxcomb, the distance from the centre-point to which a segment extends represents data. Higher the distance from the centre-point, higher the number of data points belongs to that segment. Also, it consists of 12 slices, each slice representing each month of the year. Basically, one slice represents the number of deaths within a particular month. Moreover, colour represents another data layer, the cause for deaths. What a great way to represent data nearly 200 years ago! This might be the first time in the history that one has used data visualization to convince messages for policymakers.

Data Science

Data Science is simply known as an interdisciplinary field that uses scientific methods, processes, algorithms and systems to extract knowledge. Florence Nightingale had the domain knowledge of healthcare as a nurse. She collected, analysed, presented and interpreted data. She used data visualization to explain data. During her time, modern computers were not even conceptualized, and only human computers existed. She not only extracted knowledge but used the knowledge in decision making and contributed to healthcare reforms. She simply used the knowledge to save lives. Is this not sufficient to consider her as a great data scientist? At this moment, thousands of data scientists may be working hard to save lives, especially during a pandemic situation like COVID-19. They have our admiration and respect.


  • Neuhauser D. Florence Nightingale gets no respect: as a statistician that is BMJ Quality & Safety 2003; 12:317.
  • Kopf, Edwin W. “Florence Nightingale as Statistician.” Publications of the American Statistical Association 15, no. 116 (1916): 388-404. Accessed July 26, 2020. Doi: 10.2307/2965763.

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