Today, Florence Nightingale draws a graph. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1853, Turkey declared war
on Russia. After the Russian Navy destroyed a
Turkish squadron in the Black Sea, Great Britain
and France joined with Turkey. In September of the
following year, the British landed on the Crimean
Peninsula and set out, with the French and Turks,
to take the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.
What followed was a tragicomedy of errors --
failure of supply, failed communications,
international rivalries. Conditions in the armies
were terrible, and disease ate through their ranks.
They finally did take Sevastopol a year later,
after a ghastly assault. It was ugly business all
around. Well over half a million soldiers lost
their lives during the Crimean War.
One true hero emerges from all that. Florence Nightingale had
few of the warm and fuzzy edges that surround her
image. She was a tough, tireless, and fiercely
intelligent organizer, who fought all her life to
create humane care for the sick and wounded.
In 1858, Nightingale wrote her Notes on Matters
Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital
Administration of the British Army. In it, she
created a remarkable and original graphical display
to show us just what'd really gone on in the War.
It was a Polar-Area Diagram that showed
how people had died during the period from July,
1854, through the end of the following year. The
graph is a lesson to any engineer in how to present
data -- not only so that it's clear to any reader,
but to reveal the big picture as well.
Nightingale's graph is like a pie chart, cut into
twelve equal angles. These slices advance in a
clockwise direction. Each shows what happened in
one month of one year. The outward reach of each
slice shows how many deaths occurred in that month.
We see little short slices in April, May and June
of 1854. After the troops land in the Crimea, the
slices begin reaching far outward in the radial
There's more: Each slice has three sections, one
for deaths from wounds in battle, one for "other
causes", and one for disease. Except for the
bloodiest month in the siege of Sevastopol, battle
deaths take up a very small portion of each slice.
Even the awful Charge of the Light Brigade yielded
only a modest fraction of the total deaths in that
Once you see Nightingale's graph, the terrible
picture is clear. The Russians were a minor enemy.
The real enemies were cholera, typhus, and
dysentery. Once the military looked at that
eloquent graph, the modern army hospital system was
You and I are shown graphs every day. Some are
honest; many are misleading. Nightingale could, for
example, have scaled deaths according to the
radius, instead of the area, of the segments. That
would've strengthened her case. But it would've
misled people, since area is what the eye
So you and I could use a Florence Nightingale
today, as we drown in more undifferentiated data
than anyone could've imagined during the Crimean
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Nightingale, F., Notes on Matters Affecting the
Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of
the British Army. Founded Chiefly on the Experience
of the Late War. Presented by Request to the
Secretary of State for War. Privately printed for
Miss Nightingale, Harrison and Sons, 1858.
For good accounts of the Crimean War, see any
edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica
since that war.
Several websites deal with Nightingale's
Notes on Matters ..., and with her graph (to
which she gave the descriptive name
coxcomb.). See e.g.,
Florence Nightingale 1820 - 1910
Modified image of the first of the two Coxcomb
provided by Florence Nightingale in
Notes on Matters Affecting ...
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.