This is another classic quotation in the history of statistics, attributed to Florence Nightingale:

To understand God's thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measure of his purpose.

It is a great quote, and many people use it, but I have been unable to find an actual source for this quotation. Among many other places, it appears in https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Florence_Nightingale, one of the few that provides any attribution:

As quoted in Chance Rules : An Informal Guide to Probability, Risk, and Statistics (1999) by Brian Everitt, p. 137

But that does not contain an actual source of a writing by FN. In searching for this, I came across The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, http://www.uoguelph.ca/~cwfn/index.htm, but am unable to find this quote there. Can anybody help?

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    I'm slightlt stunned that Florence Nightingale would use such a term as statistics... May 3, 2018 at 15:48
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    @MoziburUllah This may a reason to suspect the provenance of the quote, but not necessarily. The term "Statistik", was first introduced by Gottfried Achenwall (1749). In the time of FN, British workers, such as William Farr, called themselves "statists" rather than "statisticians". It is not clear when the term "statistics" entered the lexicon to refer to the study of collections of numbers.
    – user101089
    May 3, 2018 at 16:03
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    @user101089 'Statistics' was first used in English by Sir John Sinclair in 1791. He published the Statistical Accounts of Scotland in the 1790s. In the quoted context, and by the late 19th century, FN using the word statistics would not be anachronistic. May 3, 2018 at 17:15
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    @MoziburUllah It is not widely known outside of statisticians, but Florence Nightingale was in fact a pioneer in the practical application of statistics. May 4, 2018 at 4:02
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    @RBarryYoung: I for sure didn't know this; apparently, she was the first female member of the Royal Society of Statistics! May 4, 2018 at 10:07

1 Answer 1


The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has the following citation for that quote:

Scan of Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, reading: "Florence Nightingale 1820-1910 4 To understand God's thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measure of his purpose. Attr. See K. Pearson, Life...of Francis Galton, vol.II, ch.xiii, sect.i"

(apologies for the limited quality of the scan. I'm using my hand-held scanner.)

As their source, they cite The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton by By Karl Pearson (p415):

Image of Life...of Francis Galton, Pearson, p415, reading: "Statistical Investigations 415 statistical knowledge. The legislator--to say nothing of the politician--too often failed for want of this knowledge. Nay, she went further: she held that the universe--including human communities--was evolving in accordance with a divine plan; that it was man's business to endeavour to understand this plan and guide his actions in sympathy with it. But to understand God's thoughts, she held we must study statistics, for these are the measure of his purpose. Thus the study of statistics was for her a religious duty."

Interestingly, unless he is quoting from a source that he does not cite (such as a letter from Florence Nightingale to Francis Galton), it appears that Karl Pearson is putting those words into Florence Nightingale's mouth.

If that is, in fact, the case then it appears the source of the quote is Karl Pearson rather than Florence Nightingale!

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    It's not Pearson, who paraphrases and condenses FN quite well, that is putting quotation marks around that sentence. Pearson does not quote, but all the copy cats following him do that without reason. – Nice find in Q, & A as well. Now, who is correcting Wikipedia on this? May 3, 2018 at 18:19

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