Category Archives: Health

Florence Nightingale, scientist, mathematician and, uh… nurse


Florence used statistics to make her case…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Florence Nightingale starting at 6 minutes and 45 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Human evolution and Florence Nightingale.mp3]

Lady with the lamp (and her own cartoon it looks like!).

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) might have been a lady with a lamp, and she might have been a nurse, but I want to tell you that she was a scientist and a mathematician too! I’ll get to that in a bit.

Born into a rich English family living in Tuscany (it was the place to go then too I suppose), Florence was pre-destined to be a young lady of leisure and to do what all in her position were expected to do: marry well and have babies. She went for option B – eschewed the pile of 20 mattresses and instead spent her life caring for those in need. Fortunately, Florence’s father saw that an education was a requirement for a well-to-do young lady and he personally tutored her in mathematics. ‘What-everrr… when am I ever going to use this in real life?’

Uh, no, Florence didn’t say that.

Soldiers in appalling wartime conditions

Rather, after being ‘called by God’ in 1837, i.e. age 17, she announced her decision to go into nursing. Unbelievably, this decision caused much consternation for her mother but she soldiered on. It was during 1854 that she and a group of 38 women who had trained under her were despatched to the Crimean War (hope they had their satnavs working – where is Crimea?) to attend to injured British soldiers.

The Crimean War was, Florence wrote, ‘calamity unparalleled in the history of calamity’. To her it was obvious that the quality of care being offered to the wounded was sorely lacking and she set about revolutionizing the way that nursing is practised – right up until today.

From the writing of Ed Hird
No operating tables. No medical supplies. No furniture.  The lack of beds, for example, meant that the best the wounded soldiers could hope for was to be laid on the floor wrapped in a blanket. Rats ran amongst the dying. On occasion, even dead bodies were forgotten about and left to rot.  There had been no washing of linen – and every shirt was crawling with vermin. Florence ordered boilers – and boilers were installed.  Florence was able to demonstrate that for every soldier killed in battle in the Crimean War, seven died of infections and preventable disease.

Florence’s contention was that cleanliness and good nutrition would go a long way to increasing survivorship – and she deduced this without really knowing about germs because people weren’t really yet studying them at that time.

Not that Data!

But how did Florence make a compelling argument to the officials back in Britain about these terrible conditions? She fell back on her early learning, realizing that statistics and data presented as pages of numbers were boring and not persuasive to politicians. Instead, she collected numbers of the wounded who benefited from her new nursing ideas and devised a persuasive way to present them – The pie chart.

Don’t let me hear you groaning about the pie chart – what a wonderful concept. It

Pie chart example – I never thought it mattered!?

can encapsulate pages of numbers and distill the outcome of an experiment so that a casual observer immediately sees what is important. Pie charts weren’t invented by Florence but she is the one most responsible for putting them to good use. In fact, she invented a type of pie chart known as a polar area diagram, or by some as a Nightingale rose diagram. Politicians back in England took one look at her data presented in such a diagram and immediately saw the benefit of doing things Florence’s way. She was given resources and staff to clean war hospitals and to bring standards of care up to reasonable levels. What came to pass was that far fewer men died as a consequence of injuries and Florence became famous the world over for her new nursing system.

One of Florence’s actual Nightingale rose diagrams illustrating the causes of mortality during the Crimean war.

In 1860, Florence established the Nightingale Training School – not for training nightingales – at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. The school still exists and is called the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Florence was an author, too (didn’t she sleep?). She penned Notes on Nursing in 1859 and is widely acknowledged as ‘the founder of modern nursing.’

Tireless effort and compassion helped Florence Nightingale change the world but let us not forget that she got where she did – in part – by being a mathematician and scientist!

5-a-day fruit and veg – what counts?


So if I eat 5 servings of french fries will that do the trick?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. 5-a-day discussion starts at 1 minute 48 seconds in this clip:

[audio – 5 a day and science on TV.mp3]

What does 5 a day mean?

The concept of 5-a-day has been widely adopted as a ‘guideline’ for how much fruit and vegetable you should consume on a daily basis. The suggestion is that 5 servings of different fruits and vegetables will have a health benefit for most people.

Some questions arise because of statements like that:

1) Do all fruits and vegetables count? 2) How big is a serving?  3) Can I eat 5 servings of just one type of fruit?

Would’t it be brilliant if 5 servings of french fries smothered in salt and ketchup (also a vegetable) did the job. I’d sign up to 5-a-day in a second. Unfortunately, that isn’t in the spirit of the suggestion. In fact, potatoes are one of the few vegetables that don’t count towards your 5-a-day. Potatoes and a couple of other vegetables are starchy and therefore count as a different component of your diet – even though they are widely believed to be vegetables🙂

As for serving size, in total we are talking about 400 grams of fruit and veg a day or 80 grams for each of the 5 servings. I have just now weighed an apple on my lab scales and it weighed 153.47 grams. Then I ate it (only 4 more servings for me today then) and weighed the core (21.10 grams). In total therefore, I have just consumed 132.37 grams of apple goodness.

Nobody is suggesting that you should weigh out all of your fruit and veg. That’s the point of a simple to remember slogan like 5-a-day. Just eat 5 things that are roughly equivalent to an apple or slightly smaller in size.

french fries… maybe they’d count if the slogan was 6-a-day

The 5 things might be a whole fruit like a banana, apple or orange. They might be a serving of fresh or cooked vegetables like carrots, beans or corn. They could be canned or frozen vegetables. You might even have a smoothie or two (just don’t overdo the sugar). It is important to mix your vegetables to achieve the full goodness that the suggestion intends. Different fruits and vegetables contain different minerals and vitamins that are all essential for your good health. That’s why the slogan sometimes suggests that you eat different coloured fruits and veg. The colours are pigment molecules that in themselves are a source of dietary nutrition.

Can I have french fries for my remaining 4 servings today? Awww… I never get french fries…

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate…



Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Vaccinations and Nylon.mp3]

This won’t hurt a bit


Dorothy Hodgkin


Dorothy Hodgkin

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Coke and Dorothy Hodgkin.mp3]

Hodgkin – an Oxford science pioneer


Finally… a cure for baldness.


A new baldness cure

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Chocolate and baldness.mp3]

Thick and lusterous


Is chocolate really good for you!?



Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Chocolate and baldness.mp3]

A ‘good news’ story