She is remembered as ‘the lady with the lamp’, but Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) might have preferred to be known as ‘the lady with the statistics’. Excelling at mathematics from girlhood, she had a special flair for organising data into diagrams, charts and graphs. She was actively engaged in nursing for only a few years of her long life (from 1851 to 1856). When she returned to England after tending the wounded in the Crimean War, she led the life of a recluse, seldom leaving her bedroom. Yet she kept up a large correspondence, gathering information about sanitation, medical training and health care throughout the British colonies. Hugely influential in shifting the concept of nursing from amateur do-gooding to a scientifically based profession, she achieved much of her success through diligent paperwork and the drafting of meticulously researched reports. Statistics, she wrote, is ‘the most important subject in the whole world: for upon it depends the practical application of every other science and of every art: the one science essential to all political and social administrations, all education, all organisation based on experience, for it only gives the results of our experience’.
Florence Nightingale sent three letters in quick succession to Sir George Grey in April 1860, while he was Governor of Cape Colony. Her primary aim was to collect data about native schools, but she also enquired about the effectiveness of the sanatorium that Grey had established in the colony and she asked a couple of specific medical questions. She wanted to know if Grey had observed a decline in the birth-rate among indigenous people who had converted to Christianity. She was curious whether scrofula was more prevalent among people of mixed racial background.
She wrote again to Grey in July 1863 and March 1864, offering her help in setting up hospitals, when he had taken up his second term as Governor of New Zealand. Her letter of 28 July 1863 is particularly fascinating because it is more personal in tone than the others and it reveals different facets of Nightingale's complex psychology. The letter begins with an expression of sorrow at the passing of her friend and greatest supporter in the British Government, Sidney Herbert, who died in August 1861. Then, thinking of other deceased colleagues, she comments, ‘I long to follow them. My health is so bad that since the beginning of the year I have not left my room.’ In fact, she survived for five more decades, outliving Grey by a dozen years.
A woman of deep religious conviction, she believed that the betterment of health services throughout British domains was her divine calling. ‘God bless you’ she tells Grey, ‘You will do a noble work in New Zealand.’ Then she adds a characteristic admonition, ‘But pray think of your Statistics.’