Tuesday 13 August 2013

The Lady of the Coxcomb

Florence Nightingale, The Lady of the Lamp, lived a helluva long time. She was born in 1820 almost exactly a year after Queen Victoria and outlived the aged monarch by nearly a decade, dying in her sleep at home aged 90 on 13th August 1910.  Nightingale has long been the poster girl role model for young women, although most of the reasons given don't really bear up to close scrutiny.  "The Lady of the Lamp" was first used by a romantic  journalist back home in London rather than an eye-witness from the pestilential hospital at Scutari. She never claimed that her ministrations reduced mortality and nobody at the time knew how disease was transmitted during the Crimean War.  Pasteur's germ theory of disease wasn't developed until several years after the Treaty of Paris ended the fighting.  And Koch's Postulates, linking particular microbes to specific diseases, were the product of the next generation.  Actually, a lot of people knew that disease was spread by contagion (physical contact between patients) but they were wrong, weren't they and FN said so having assessed the data.  A case can be made for her being an early feminist and she slated her mother and sister for basking in the privilege of inherited wealth and living from tea-party to concert to a little light letter writing. Florence, by contrast, believed she was called by god to roll up her sleeves and do something useful. "The time is come when women must do something more than the "domestic hearth," which means nursing the infants, keeping a pretty house, having a good dinner and an entertaining party."

Revisionists have drawn attention to the fact that she made real contributions to the early development of statistics, in particular the graphical representation of data in order to make more compelling a particular argument.  Here's an example of what she called a "coxcomb" plot, to show a year's worth of mortality data among British soldiers.
It's quite clever because the area of each block is proportional to the number of dead.  But as a graphical concept it really needs more work, because the small print says that all areas are calculated from the centre.  In other words the blue "battle" deaths are superimposed upon the red "non-battle" deaths, so the latter are really red+blue.  Nevertheless, it illustrates powerfully that far more of the army's effectives were dying from cholera, dysentery or infectious typhus than from bullet or bayonet. And that (economic?) argument eventually drove changes in practice.  It didn't really help the soldiers in the Crimea, but those who served afterwards in India survived better because of her political and statistical arguments, which among other things compelled the government to set up a Royal Commission.  She was the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society.  Bonnets off!

The Blob's women in science: Florence Nightingale - Barbara McClintock - Maude Delap - Cliona O'Farrelly - Lynn Margulis - Rosalind Franklin - Jocelyn Bell Burnell

No comments:

Post a Comment