2020, the year of Florence Nightingales 200th birthday. As a head nurse in the in the Crimean War (1854-55), a celebrated social reformer and statistician, she is credited with laying the foundation for modern nursing. It seems a little ironic that Florence shares the bicentenary of her birth with the year the pandemic struck. As radical design thinker who combined data analysis with storytelling, Florence would go on to have a revolutionary impact on healthcare. We wanted to recognize and celebrate this ground-breaking female innovator with an imaged conversation.
Bernard Panes: Could you tell us how you found your way to nursing?
Florence Nightingale: I was fortunate that my father believed in education for women and girls, which was a novel idea 200 years ago. I studied everything, but it was mathematics that really captured my interest -- I took great pleasure in data analysis.
During that era, the expectation for women was to marry, have children, and run the household. That certainly wasn't the path for me.
I was able to travel in my 20s and settled for a time in a little Lutheran community in Germany, where I was very inspired by the work of deaconesses who cared for the sick. That’s where I gained my first proper medical training.
BP: What turned you into an activist and social reformer?
FN: During the Crimean war, I led 38 volunteer nurses to help in the field hospitals after I learned about the horrific conditions endured by the wounded soldiers. I was moved by the plight of these soldiers and desperately wanted to help. I quickly realised that, although medication was in short supply, it was poor sanitation that was the major killer, as it was causing fatal infections. I started new policies like hand washing and wrote to the Times in London requesting government help. This resulted in a new field hospital with better ventilation and a sewer system. Under these improved conditions, the death rate dropped dramatically from 42% to 2%.
BP: And how did you use data to drive changes in healthcare?
FN: After I returned to the UK, I put my knowledge gained in the field hospitals to work for hospitals there. I needed to show the statistics on what people were dying from, so I created a polar area diagram, also called a “Nightingale Rose,” for my petition to the British Royal Commission.
I started petitioning Parliament, using what people today call infographics to tell the story, and it worked! Statistics become so powerful when they can be visualised. I used this approach again and again to lobby for change.
In 1855, the Nightingale Fund was established and I used it to start a training school at St Thomas' hospital in London. Things accelerated from there. Formal training for nurses was new and our graduates travelled far and wide to share their knowledge. At this time, we were just learning about “germ theory.” I advocated for policies to eliminate germs to improve health. It was a tremendous time of advancement for healthcare and I’m humbled to think that I contributed to such impactful change.
BP: Lessons from Florence for Leaders
FN: As an innovation leader at Accenture, Florence’s approach to innovation resonates with me:
- She had a clear north star that translated into strategy -- the improvement of health outcomes through modern nursing and sanitation reform.
- She was data-driven and used statistical analysis combined with storytelling to create an imperative for action.
- She was hands-on, with genuine validated learning gained from immersion in the experiences of those she sought to help, an early and uncommon example of radical design thinking and human centricity.
- She knew she couldn't do it all herself, so she focused on education and empowerment of nurses to scale impact.
- Finally, she used experimentation and course correction—her initiatives started small to prove results, but then the feedback loop through policy and education kicked in to scale what worked.
Today, we still have much to learn from Florence’s accomplishments as a leader, as an innovator, and as a transformative force for the betterment of healthcare around the world.