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15 Heroic Facts About Florence Nightingale

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Venerated as the "founder of modern nursing," Florence Nightingale—who was born in Florence, Italy on May 12, 1820—left a revolutionary mark on sanitation, healthcare, and even statistics. Today, on the anniversary of her birth, is the perfect time to celebrate her extraordinary life—one that saved countless others.      

1. NIGHTINGALE WAS FLUENT IN ENGLISH, FRENCH, GERMAN, AND ITALIAN.

She also had a decent hold on both Latin and classical Greek. Her father, a wealthy Cambridge grad, personally oversaw young Florence’s education. Through him, she learned the basics of everything from mathematics to philosophy to Shakespearean literature. 

2. DESPITE HER PARENTS' OBJECTIONS, SHE CHOSE TO PURSUE NURSING AT A YOUNG AGE.

Nursing didn't garner much respect back in 1837. Generally, it was associated with low social status and rampant alcoholism. Lousy wages also forced many women who entered the field to make ends meet by engaging in a bit of prostitution on the side. So, when 16-year-old Nightingale announced that she felt "called" to become a nurse, her parents weren’t thrilled. But their determined daughter’s mind was made up and, in 1850, she finally started learning the craft. Three years later, Nightingale became the superintendent of a London-based women’s hospital.    

3. NIGHTINGALE REFUSED TO GET MARRIED.

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She turned down multiple proposals, including one made by a cousin named Henry Nicholson

4. SHE HAD 38 NURSES WORKING UNDER HER DURING THE CRIMEAN WAR.

This 1850s conflict, in which Britain and France clashed with Russia over the Slavic empire’s invasion of Turkish territory, turned Nightingale into a Victorian celebrity.

Nightingale was friends with U.K. war secretary Sidney Herbert, and he gave her permission to round up 38 volunteers and treat the wounded at a field hospital in Scutari. Cleanliness wasn’t the facility’s strong suit: Feces littered the floors, rats scampered through the hallways, and clean linens were a rare commodity; 42.7 percent of admitted patients died in February 1855. Clearly, Nightingale deduced, there was a link between poor sanitation and that high mortality rate. She soon implemented strict hygiene rules that whittled the number down to 2 percent by June. 

5. NIGHTINGALE'S DILIGENCE INSPIRED A GLOWING NICKNAME.

"She is a ‘ministering angel’ without any exaggeration in these hospitals," the London Times reported that winter. As their article added, she could often be "observed alone," checking up on the wounded "with a little lamp in her hand." Just like that, Nightingale won international acclaim as the benevolent "Lady with the Lamp."

6. SHE FREQUENTLY WROTE LETTERS HOME ON BEHALF OF DYING OR DEAD  SOLDIERS.

Nightingale sometimes took it upon herself to be the bearer of bad news, as she did in this snippet from a delicately-worded message sent in 1856: "It is with very sincere sorrow that I am obliged to confirm the fears of the father of the Late Howell Evans about his poor son … I have never in my life had so painful & unsatisfactory a letter to write."

7. SHE HELPED POPULARIZE THE PIE CHART.

The first true pie chart was drawn in 1801, 19 years before Nightingale was born. Still, historians recognize the nurse as an early adopter and promoter of the statistical tool. Her 1858 report, "Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army," includes the graph pictured above. Every slice represents a given month’s casualties, with the colors red, blue, and black designating death via "wounds," "preventable disease," and "other causes," respectively.

8. QUEEN VICTORIA WAS A BIG FAN.

Before things wrapped up in Crimea, Her Majesty rewarded Nightingale’s service by sending her a special brooch as a thank you. "It will be a very great satisfaction to me," the Queen declared, "when you return at last to these shores, to make the acquaintance of one who has set so bright an example to our sex." She’d get her wish when the pair met face-to-face in 1856—and they’d remain in contact for decades thereafter.

9. NIGHTINGALE WORKED WITH THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT TO ENACT FAR-REACHING SANITATION LAWS.

The Lady with the Lamp used her influence to bring about significant changes at home. Between 1871 and 1875—long after the war was over—she successfully pushed for legislation that would force extant buildings into connecting with main drainage. The results speak for themselves: By 1935, Britain’s national life expectancy had increased by 20 years.

10. HER 1859 BOOK, NOTES ON NURSING: WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT IS NOT, BECAME ONE OF THE PROFESSION'S MOST SIGNIFICANT TEXTS.  

Pointers like "Every nurse ought to be careful to wash her hands very frequently during the day" and "every nurse should be … capable of being a 'confidential' nurse" are just as invaluable today as they were 156 years ago

11. DURING THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, BOTH SIDES TRIED TO PROFIT FROM NIGHTINGALE'S ADVICE.

Both the Union and the Confederacy were obsessed with proper ventilation of their hospitals, which were specially built in accordance with her theories. Meanwhile, she contacted D.C.-based Union leaders directly with helpful soldier mortality statistics.

12. SHE ALSO EDUCATED "AMERICA'S FIRST TRAINED NURSE."

Linda Richards (1841-1930) owns this distinction, which she acquired by attending London’s Nightingale School of Nursing (founded in 1860 at St. Thomas’ Hospital). Nightingale herself helped personally advise Richards, whose focus later shifted toward psychiatry and working with mental health professionals.

13. SHE BECAME THE FIRST WOMAN TO BE INDUCTED INTO THE ORDER OF MERIT.

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Established in 1902, this high British honor was created by King Edward VII to recognize individuals who “have rendered exceptionally meritorious services  ... towards the advancement of the Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science.” Nightingale earn the accolade in 1907; no other woman would be awarded the honor again until biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin followed suit 58 years later. 

14. HER BIRTHDAY IS CELEBRATED AROUND THE WORLD AS "INTERNATIONAL NURSES DAY."

The annual tradition of recognizing nurses for their hard work and contributions on May 12 has been going strong since 1974.  

15. YOU CAN HEAR NIGHTINGALE'S VOICE ON YOUTUBE.

On July 30, 1890, Nightingale met with one of Thomas Edison’s British representatives and created this brief recording. The proceeds went to assist Crimean War veterans, specifically those who’d fought in the disastrous Battle of Balaclava. Her captured remarks are as follows:

When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale.

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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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