Florence Nightingale: the pandemic hero we need
But while she is most famous as a nurse, Nightingale was also — and I say this in most sincere admiration — a massive geek. She was the first female fellow of what became the Royal Statistical Society, and never happier than when poring over a table of public health statistics. For Nightingale, however, the data were not just a passion but a weapon.
“Whenever I am infuriated,” she wrote to her friend, the influential politician Sidney Herbert, “I revenge myself with a new diagram.”
Nightingale had much to be infuriated about. Returning from the war, she led a long and arduous campaign to improve standards of public health and sanitation. She had a saintly reputation and powerful friends, but was also a woman in a man’s world, facing implacable opposition from the medical and military establishment. In a strange forerunner to last year’s debate about herd immunity, in 1858 John Simon, the chief medical officer, argued that we should simply be taking contagious diseases such as cholera and dysentery on the chin. They were, he declared, “practically speaking, unavoidable”.
No wonder Nightingale spoke of revenge: her diagrams were part of a calculated lobbying campaign to prove that, whatever Simon might say, many deaths from infectious disease in the army, in hospitals and in the community were completely preventable. She told Herbert that she planned to have her diagrams glazed, framed and hung on the wall at the Army Medical Board and the War Department.