Florence Nightingale: Statistics to Save Lives
- Lynn McDonald
This paper reviews Florence Nightingale’s contribution to the use of statistics to save lives, beginning with the Crimean War (1854-56). It addresses accusations to the contrary, that her work resulted in lives lost, with primary source data in refutation. It also demolishes exaggerated claims for her, on the extent and speed of death rate reductions achieved, that she collected statistics to this end, and that she did the work virtually single-handedly.
Comparative French death rates during the war are cited which show how successful the British were with their sanitary reforms. Nightingale’s significant collaboration with the leader of the Sanitary Commission is related. The two went on to numerous successful reforms post-Crimea. The creation of a Statistical Branch was a key part of the strategy.
Several unsuccessful attempts Nightingale made to improve statistics are noted, beginning with a rejected proposal to add questions on health to the 1861 Census. Next came the Colonial Office’s failure to follow up on her research on excessive deaths in British colonial hospitals and schools, which raised the broader issue of declines in aboriginal numbers. Finally, she had to give up on an attempt to have applied statistics taught at Oxford University, for the benefit of future Cabinet ministers and senior administrators.
The paper argues that Nightingale’s belief that statistics can be used to save lives still has merit, so long as the endeavour is taken seriously, with adequate attention to detail and complexity.
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