Florence Nightingale v William Farr: a battle of 18th Century data rockstars

Florence Nightingale: data rockstar
Florence Nightingale: data rockstar

One of my favourite stories in the history of data visualisation involves Florence Nightingale. In the field of data visualisation she is famous for her “coxcomb” charts (click here for a good background on them). The charts were published in a govermnet commissioned report sent to Queen Victoria in 1858.

What I like about the story is how she was a true data rockstar and fought against the dry tradition of showing just statistical tables. To me a data rockstar is a disruptor. She’d been that throughout her life. A fellow member of the hospital commission, Peter Benson Maxwell, said

“The cool steady way in which she does everything notwithstanding occasional sour looks from officials is perfect”

William Farr

When she was compiling her report, she was challenged to find the best way to bring her dramatic conclusions home to the public. She worked on the report with William Farr, a pioneer of medical statistics. They were very close, and she looked up to him. However, he advised her against publishing the charts: he preferred tables. “The dryer, the better,” was his attitude to statistics.

I love to imagine the conversations. William Farr, a traditional Victorian gentleman, arguing with Florence, a powerful, strong woman, disrupting not only data, but nursing and society at large. She saw that people needed to see data in order to understand, whereas he didn’t. Go Florence! Without people like her pushing things forward and thinking of new ways to see data, we may not be where we are today.

The quotes in this post are from letters quoted in Mark Bostridge’s excellent biography of Nightingale.

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“The dryer, the better,” was his attitude to statistics.

It’s now know that it was Nightingale who made the remark, not Farr!

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