The Lady with the Lamp

Mark Frasco - President

Kathleen, my wife, is a retired nurse. If you know a nurse or have had the opportunity to be around a collection of them, you know what an incredible job they do. The training is rigorous. The work requires a challenging mix of intellect and skill, which is only trumped by compassion and thoughtfulness. This article isn’t really about nursing, but it is about the nurse who arguably carved the future for all nurses who followed her, Florence Nightingale. Please read on. There is much more to this important figure than most know.

Nightingale, who is often referred to as The Lady with the Lamp, due to her late night visits to patients, was born on this day, May 12, 1820, in Florence, Italy. Yes, she was named after her city of birth.

During the Crimean War (1853-1856), hospital conditions for wounded English soldiers were so poor, the Secretary of War summoned Nightingale and nearly forty volunteer nurses that she trained, to journey across the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire. She implemented hygiene systems that introduced fresh water, regular bandage changes and daily bedding changes that significantly reduced infection, reducing deaths in the hospital from 42% to 2%.

Nightingale went on to write Notes on Nursing (1859), which served as the text for her nurse training school and other schools around the world. Nightingale wrote:

“Every day sanitary knowledge, or the knowledge of nursing, or in other words, of how to put the constitution in such a state as that it will have no disease, or that it can recover from disease, takes a higher place. It is recognised as the knowledge which everyone ought to have – distinct from medical knowledge, which only a profession can have”.

Her work and writing was critical, during a time when the understanding of infection and sanitation in health care were relatively unknown. Today, professionals in health care treat these topics as baseline knowledge, helping severely reduce and eliminate deaths in their facilities.

I have a nickname around our office, Chart Man. Admittedly, I tend to enjoy the process of gathering, organizing and analyzing data. I entered my career before there was spreadsheet software. For that reason, when Lotus Symphony was introduced in the late 1980s, I went through the painstaking process of teaching myself spreadsheet formulas and charting techniques. Now, I enjoy helping others see data in useful ways.

Pie charts are very useful to depict discrete categorical separation of data, with each slice size showing the percentage of the whole. Typically, pie charts are static in time, showing data at some moment. This has historically been one of the weaknesses of pie charts, in that, without creating multiple charts across time, it is difficult to follow trending of results.

Nightingale, for all her recognition as a thought leader in the healthcare field, was really a trained statistician. Tutored by her father, she was a master mathematician.

Nightingale is credited with the development of the polar area diagram (insert), a more complex form of the pie chart, depicting significance of causes of death (distance from center and color) over time. In 1858, Nightingale was the first female elected into the Royal Statistical Society.

Here is a primer on some less common charts, as described in Wikipedia:

  • A bubble chart is a two-dimensional scatterplot where a third variable is represented by the size of the points.
  • A polar area diagram, sometimes called a Coxcomb chart, is an enhanced form of pie chart developed by Florence Nightingale.
  • A radar chart or “spider chart” or “doi” is a two-dimensional chart of three or more quantitative variables represented on axes starting from the same point.
  • A waterfall chart also known as a “Walk” chart, is a special type of floating-column chart.
  • A tree map where the areas of the rectangles correspond to values. Other dimensions can be represented with colour or hue.

What you measure makes that thing important. Every day, week, month and quarter should feature charts that bring you and your team closer to fact-based decision making.

Thank you Florence and Happy Birthday!

Questions or comments? Please contact Mark Frasco at