The Baltimore Sun has an interesting article on Baltimore-area techie/CEO Heather Sarkissian today for Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day. Last year I wrote about Jane McGonigal. I’m going back in time for my pick this year. I’ve been following the Lovelace and Babbage webcomic for a while now. That’s a tongue-in-cheek black and white comic strip about Ada Lovelace, (first computer programmer) and Charles Babbage (more on the hardware side). It’s also jammed with historical references and links to further history, often with interesting comments from others, such as in reference to “Lovelace and Babbage vs. the Organist, pt. 2″, which offers Adolphe Quetelet (who did what was then called “social physics”) as another character drawn from actual history:
How could you introduce Quetelet without mentioning his corresponding companion, the Lovelace to his Babbage, Florence Nightingale?
I know, everybody thinks of her as a sort of nurse, but she was actually the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Statistical Society. She was the Al Gore of her day, traveling around the country lecturing on the statistics of army attrition. Her Uncomfortable Truth was that most soldiers died, not in glorious battle, but of diarrhoea, and that a proper attention to health care in the field would result in a bigger, fitter fighting force.
She kept the big books of dry statistics for her fellow stats geeks, and instead used fancy graphs (her famous sector area diagram of deaths in the Crimean War was Quetelet’s invention). She put the colorful pie charts and bar charts into small pamphlets she called ‘coxcombs’; “I’m going to give a talk in Manchester,” she’d write to her printers, “so I need another two hundred coxcombs to distribute.
So there you have it. Florence Nightingale, who knew? She knew the importance of information analysis AND presentation of the results to politicians, to effect reform. I hadn’t ever heard of Quetelet before, but I remembered from a children’s book long ago that Nightingale was a nurse who fought to reform medical practices (especially wartime hospitals) in her day (the 19th century). I hadn’t known what an awesome geek she was on top of that. See the Wikipedia article on Florence Nightingale for links to more information. So here’s to you, Florence Nightingale!