Buzzfeed’s infographic review of Beautiful Science

The British Library is running an exhibit entitled “Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight” from 20th February to 26th May 2014.

BL and St Panc by Jim Linwood

Picture: The British Library and St Pancras by Jim Linwood, Flickr Creative Commons

The exhibition explores how scientific stories are told by turning numbers into pictures – the story of infographics.

This historical review of infographics reveal how scientific understanding has developed together with people’s capacity to represent data in pictures and graphs. Buzzfeed have paid tribute to Beautiful Science with a look at “9 Glorious Infographics Through History”, which is both an appropriate and considerate choice. The display features a variety of designs spanning almost four centuries.

BF BS exhibit

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favourite infographics were John Graunt’s “Bills of Mortality” from 1662 and Florence Nightingale’s “Rose Diagram” from 1854.

enhanced-buzz-wide-Graunt's Bills of Mortality

Picture: John Graunt’s Bills of Mortality (1662). From British Library.  Click to enlarge

Graunt’s table is one of the earliest publications of public health data. It was collated from early death notifications gathered by parish clerks in London at the turn of the 17th century, in an attempt to monitor deaths from plague.

Among the more interesting points were the three to four people per year who died from lethargy; the eight who died by “Wolf” between 1633 and 1636 (why none before or after – was there a cull of man-eaters?); and most sadly what appears to be 279 folk who died from grief over those 15-20 years.

John Graunt was a haberdasher by trade, although he is now considered to be one of the first epidemiologists.

The Rose Diagram by Florence Nightingale (below) also stands out as a fine public health infographic.

Nightingale is famous for looking after thousands of soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-6). But the Lady of the Lamp was also a splendid epidemiologist, who harnessed the power of the infographic and statistics to initiate change.

Flo N Rose Diagram

Picture: Florence Nightingale’s Rose Diagram (1854). From the British Library

Iconic may be too strong a word to describe Nightingale’s “rose diagram” but I think it is appropriate – this nineteenth century pie-chart is indeed a visual icon.

It shows seasonal variation in the cause of mortality of soldiers in the military field hospital.

At the end of the war, Nightingale wrote a report including this infographic, which carried a stark message: hospitals can kill. The majority of soldiers died from preventable diseases (in blue) rather than from battle wounds (in red).

The Rose Diagram was designed to show that improving sanitation in hospitals could save lives. It ultimately led to cleaner hospitals, where more lives were saved.

The Beautiful Science exhibit runs from 20th February to 26th May 2014 with free admission to the Folio Gallery.


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