In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana an undercover agent, Beatrice, is sent from London to assist Wormold. On her first night in Cuba she goes out to the most popular nightclub in town and douses a prominent policeman in soda water. When our (anti)hero chastises her for making herself so conspicuous, she replies with a wonderfully insightful piece of human observation: “Nobody will ask questions any more about who I am. They have the answer.”
Just as Beatrice became “the woman who siphoned the policeman”, Beatrix Potter is the author of the Peter Rabbit books, and Florence Nightingale is the “Lady with the Lamp”. Right?
However, there is more to these two famous women than is commonly known: both of them were talented scientists.
Beatrix Potter didn’t only draw rabbits in blue jackets, she also made careful drawings of her observations down the microscope – at the time the only way to record microscopic images. Through careful observation and experimentation she was one of the first to discover that lichens – those flaky, crusty things you see growing on tree bark and rocks – are not one organism, but two organisms, a fungus and an alga, living in a close, symbiotic relationship.
Unfortunately, she was seriously discouraged in her career by the scientific establishment. As a woman she was not permitted to present her own work to the Linnean Society and had to send her uncle in her stead (the Linnean Society eventually apologised in 1997 for how they had treated her). Beatrix put away her microscope, and focussed instead on her children’s stories.
Florence Nightingale’s story is different in that she was recognised during her lifetime; it seems it is only in retrospect that we have simplified her biography to “Lady with the Lamp”.
The woman who invented nursing did much more than dab an occasional brow and console the dying. She revolutionised hospital care and crucially demonstrated the importance of hygiene and sanitary practices in patient outcomes. This was at a time when reputation and standing were the most convincing attributes someone could possess, neither of which Ms Nightingale had in abundance.
How could this unconventional person, who happened to also be a woman, persuade the medical establishment to alter their practices?
Florence Nightingale harnessed the undeniable truth and clarity of carefully collected and presented statistics to demonstrate the clear benefits of proper sanitation. It sounds obvious to us today, trained as we are from childhood, that washing your hands, keeping wounds clean, and household sanitation are important for good health, but at the time it was not accepted that there were microscopic things on your hands and on other surfaces that could make you sick.
Florence Nightingale’s work collecting, analysing and presenting statistics was brilliant, and succeeded in convincing the skeptical medical establishment of the importance of santitation. In recognition she was made the first ever female member of the Royal Statistical Society, and we continue to benefit from her careful work today.
I was delighted to learn all this, only quite recently, and to discover that these women, whom I thought I knew so well, were far more inspirational than I had realised. Both of them unconventional, intelligent, and ahead of their time.
Occasionally it’s worth remembering to look beyond the simple biography.