School of Nursing

May 12, 2021

Florence Nightingale, Public Health, and the COVID Pandemic

Today is the 201st birthday of Florence Nightingale, who is widely credited with establishing the foundation on which modern nursing has risen.

Less often credited is Nightingale’s pioneering use of data to understand and illustrate the impact of hygiene (or lack thereof) on population health. Nightingale’s efforts were pivotal to understanding and presenting the data in ways that enabled others in health care and the public to understand what it meant.

Nightingale came to public awareness during the Crimean War, where she brought a team of volunteer nurses to care for British soldiers in field hospitals and camps. She quickly gathered data that showed while many soldiers were dying of war-related injuries, ten times more were perishing from lack of hygiene. Appalled at the lack of basic hygiene, she quickly learned that the worst enemies faced by the soldiers were infectious diseases such as cholera, typhus, and dysentery. So Nightingale set about changing not only the soldiers’ conditions but also the opinions of army commanders, legislators, and the public.

Few realize that Nightingale was a statistician and a powerful communicator. She used her skills to build visual representations of the information she collected, making the statistical nuances apparent for all to see. As great as her other accomplishments were, perhaps Nightingale’s greatest achievement was bringing the nascent field of public health to public attention and with it the need to understand the enormous impact simple measures can have on a population’s health.

Her quest continues. Long after Nightingale’s death, we have hundreds of thousands of public health professionals and other nurses throughout the world working night and day to help put an end to what has become an enormous global health crisis. We also continue to benefit from data visualization, as illustrated by the various maps used during the pandemic to track case counts and vaccination rates. Nurses continue to follow in Nightingale’s footsteps, advocating for better health, encouraging people to use the data-driven information available to achieve wellness, and showing compassion and concern for their communities.

Please join me in honoring Nightingale’s birthday and legacy by helping to curb COVID-19 by getting vaccinated, following public health measures, and staying informed.