Florence Nightingale Saved Lives by Creating Revolutionary Visualizations of Statistics (1855)

I’ve long count­ed myself as a fan of Edward Tufte, the pre­em­i­nent liv­ing expert on the visu­al dis­play of quan­ti­ta­tive infor­ma­tion. I like to think this puts me in the com­pa­ny of Flo­rence Nightin­gale, founder of mod­ern nurs­ing as well as a pro­lif­ic writer and still today a house­hold name. Hav­ing lived in the Vic­to­ri­an era, she of course nev­er got to enjoy the work of Tufte him­self, though her own zeal for data and sta­tis­tics, in a time that val­ued such things less than ours, made her, in some sense, a Tufte of her day: the first female mem­ber of the Roy­al Sta­tis­ti­cal Soci­ety and an hon­orary mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Sta­tis­ti­cal Asso­ci­a­tion. The video above, an out­take from Hans Rosling’s The Joy of Stats, offers a brief intro­duc­tion to the sta­tis­ti­cal side of Nightin­gale’s career, and the impor­tant role data visu­al­iza­tion played in her mis­sion to save lives.

“When Flo­rence Nightin­gale arrived at a British hos­pi­tal in Turkey dur­ing the Crimean War, she found a night­mare of mis­ery and chaos,” writes Sci­ence News’ Julie Rehmey­er. “By the time Nightin­gale left Turkey after the war end­ed in July 1856, the hos­pi­tals were well-run and effi­cient, with mor­tal­i­ty rates no greater than civil­ian hos­pi­tals in Eng­land.”

But feel­ing great regret over all the lives lost there to pre­ventable dis­ease, she went on to save even more of them by bring­ing num­bers into play. She specif­i­cal­ly com­piled “vast tables of sta­tis­tics about how many peo­ple had died, where and why. Many of her find­ings shocked her. For exam­ple, she dis­cov­ered that in peace­time, sol­diers in Eng­land died at twice the rate of civil­ians — even though they were young men in their primes.”


Nightin­gale’s most influ­en­tial pre­sen­ta­tion of her data, which she called a “cox­comb,” appears just above. This Is Sta­tis­tics describes “Dia­gram of the Caus­es of Mor­tal­i­ty in the Army in the East” as “sim­i­lar to a pie chart, but more intri­cate. In a pie chart the size of the ‘slices’ rep­re­sent a pro­por­tion of data, while in a cox­comb the length, which the slice extends radi­al­ly from the cen­ter-point, rep­re­sents the first lay­er of data.” Her famous chart “was divid­ed even­ly into 12 slices rep­re­sent­ing months of the year, with the shad­ed area of each month’s slice pro­por­tion­al to the death rate that month. Her col­or-cod­ed shad­ing indi­cat­ed the cause of death in each area of the dia­gram.” She stat­ed the goal of her visu­al­iza­tion clear­ly: “to affect thro’ the Eyes what we fail to con­vey to the pub­lic through their word-proof ears.”

We all try to do the very same thing when we present infor­ma­tion today, though few of us—even armed with a degree of num­ber-crunch­ing and graph­ic design pow­ers that would have seemed mag­i­cal to Nightin­gale and her contemporaries—achieve the kind of results she did. She gal­va­nized sys­temic change in hos­pi­tal design and oper­a­tion as well as prompt­ed a rev­o­lu­tion in san­i­ta­tion which increased Britain’s aver­age nation­al life expectan­cy by 20 years—something to bear in mind when we start to get big ideas about how our Pow­er­point slide shows will change the world.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

via @pourmecoffee

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Data Visu­al­iza­tion: How to Tell Com­plex Sto­ries Through Smart Design

Slick Data Visu­al­iza­tion Reveals Sci­en­tif­ic Col­lab­o­ra­tions Tak­ing Place Around the Globe

In Under Three Min­utes, Hans Rosling Visu­al­izes the Incred­i­ble Progress of the “Devel­op­ing World”

Watch a Cool and Creepy Visu­al­iza­tion of U.S. Births & Deaths in Real-Time

Sta­tis­tics Explained Through Mod­ern Dance: A New Way of Teach­ing a Tough Sub­ject

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Randy says:

    Not real­ly impressed with the cox­comb… it’s clear as mud.

    The visu­al impres­sion is that the areas are what are to be com­pared, which is sort of true, but it’s the area of the entire wedge, not just the vis­i­ble por­tion. Fur­ther, I don’t think peo­ple com­pare areas very well, which is why they make great opti­cal illu­sions. A wedge with side twice as big as the wedge over­lap­ping it actu­al­ly cov­ers 4x as much area, some of which is cov­ered (see Octo­ber 1954). It’s worth not­ing that the quotes you select­ed mis-inter­pret the chart, claim­ing that radi­al length (not area as it says right on the chart) rep­re­sents the data. Then it con­tra­dicts itself AND the chart by refer­ring to “the shad­ed area of each month’s slice”. It’s a good thing they did­n’t call their web­site “This is Read­ing” because they can’t.

    It’s also not clear where to begin. And appar­ent­ly each piece is meant to be rotat­ed around its own cen­ter, based on the way the months are labeled. What a has­sle!

    What was wrong with doing a sim­ple line chart? If large num­bers are a prob­lem, you can use a log­a­rith­mic deaths axis. While the lines in the line chart would only be an approx­i­ma­tion of the month­ly death rates on a par­tic­u­lar date, it’s visu­al­ly very clear what’s hap­pen­ing month to month.

  • Snoopy says:

    You are, sir, are what’s known as a “hater”. This is akin to dis­miss­ing Metrop­o­lis as a bor­ing retread of robot movies.

    Nightin­gale did remark­able work with what she had avail­able, and we should laud her.

  • carlo says:

    Snoopy, we cer­tain­ly should. But not for the pre­ci­sion of her report­ing her find­ing. Which I believe was not, in the first place, what she was try­ing to achieve. “Mov­ing hearts” describes it bet­ter. How­ev­er, what Randy notes in his com­ment (and he’s cer­tain­ly not a “hater”) is per­fect­ly cor­rect. I also strug­gle to make “real”, quan­ti­tive sense of Nightin­gale’s chart. While, at the same time, being quite charmed by it. I will say that it works well on an emo­tion­al lev­el, and only at that one. No use­ful quan­ti­tive infor­ma­tion are eas­i­ly extract­ed by it.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.