Agnes Scott College

Florence Nightingale David


August 23, 1909 - July 23, 1993

Written by Catherine O'Sullivan, Class of 1998 (Agnes Scott College)

Florence Nightingale David was born August 23, 1909. She began her academic life in 1929 when she set forth with dreams of becoming an actuary. After graduating from Bedford College for Women in London in 1931, her dreams were unfortunately put on hold. David applied for a career fellowship at an insurance firm and was unexpectedly turned down. When she inquired why, she was told that although she was the most qualified applicant, she was a woman. It was here that she learned "the two lessons which have haunted [her] all [her] life...first that women tend to be unfairly treated and second, if you persevere difficulties can be overcome"(2). Her father said "you will meet this all your life...get on with your work,"(2) and so she did. David wrote to a friend about the many disappointments she went through early in her career. She said the reasons people turned her down for jobs was because "they hadn't got facilities for women to use the toilets" (2). Not only did David overcome the injustice that confronted her, but with her achievements, she opened the door for other women in statistics.

Fortunately, David's perseverance paid off quickly when in 1933 she was offered a job by Karl Pearson to work as a research assistant in his laboratory at the University College in London. Pearson made sure David's college scholarship was extended and served as a source of encouragement for her. Two years later she became an assistant lecturer for the college's Statistics Department and then received her doctorate in statistics from there in 1938.

In 1939, David made the most out of the opportunities brought forth by World War II. She became an experimental officer and senior statistician for the Research and Experiments Department, was scientific advisor on mines for the Military Experimental Establishment and served as a member on the Land Mines Committee, Ministry of Home Security and Scientific Advisory Council. David felt that the war gave women more opportunities and that conditions for them are now better because of it.

After the war, David continued her job as lecturer at the University College in London until 1962 when she became a professor. The college had a society for scientists on the faculty, but David was not a member because it did not include women. Therefore, David took a stand and founded a scientific society that included both men and women. At the same time, David also became a visiting professor and research statistician for the Department of Statistics and Applied Climatology and Forestry Division at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1968 she was offered a job as professor and chair of the Department of Biostatistics at the University of California at Riverside. David became the chair of the department of statistics in 1970. Seven years later, she retired from Riverside and became professor emeritus and research associate in Biostatistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

In addition to her teaching, David was the author of two monographs, nine books, and over 100 papers in scientific journals. Her book "Games, Gods, and Gambling" is a classic book on the history of probability theory. She was also a review editor for Biometrika. David was elected as a fellow to the American Statistical Association in 1954 and became a member of the International Statistical Institute in 1951 and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in 1946. Among the many academic honors awarded David was becoming the first recipient in August of 1992 of the Elizabeth L. Scott Award sponsored by the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies. She received this award for her "efforts in opening the door to women in statistics; for contributions to the profession over many years, for contributions to education, science and public service; for research contributions to combinatorics, statistical methods, applications and understanding history; and her spirit as a lecturer and as a role model" (2). In her acceptance speech for the award, David explained that although women have come a long way, it is still important "to remember to teach the young that when you meet a set-back don't sit down and weep, go and get on with your work" (2). David died in 1993 and left behind not only her academic achievements, but also an open door for women to enter mathematics.

May 1996

Additional Note, December 2005
In 2001 the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies and the Caucus for Women in Statistics established the Florence Nightingale David Award. The description of this award reads:

This award is named after Florence Nightingale David, an accomplished statistician and the first recipient of the Elizabeth L. Scott Award. This award is to be granted to a female statistician who serves as a role model to other women by her contributions to the profession through excellence in research, leadership of multidisciplinary collaborative groups, statistics education, or service to the professional societies. The F. N. David Award, established in 2001, will be awarded bi-annually (odd years) and consists of a plaque and cash award.

An extensive biography can be found in the article by Amanda Golbeck and Craig Molgaard, "The Inimitable F. N. David:A Renaissance Statistician", Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 68, No. 3 (March 2021), 321-330.


  1. Sandra Stinnett. "Women in Statistics: Sesquicentennial Activities," The American Statistician, May 1990, Vol. 44. No.2.
  2. Institute of Mathematical Statistics Bulletin. Vol. 21, No. 5, 1992: 468-69.
  3. "F. N. David Wins First Elizabeth L. Scott Award", AWM Newsletter, May-June 1993, p.5
  4. In Memoriam, AWM Newsletter, January-February 1994, p.16
  5. Laird, Nan M. "A Conversation with F. N. David," Statistical Science, Vol. 4 (no. 3), 1989, 235-246.
  6. Salsburg, David. The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century, W.H. Freeman and Company, 2001, 151-159.
  7. Barton, David. "Obituary: Florence Nightingale David," J. Roy. Statist. Soc. Ser. A 157 (1994), no. 2, 299-301
  8. Utts, Jessica. "Obituary: Florence Nightingale David (1909--1993)," Biometrics 49 (1993), no. 4
  9. Obituary, San Francisco Chronicle, 27 July, 1993, A19
  10. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  11. Author Profile at zbMath
  12. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  13. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive