data, data journalism, data visualization, infographic, journalism, maps

Visualising pandemics between 1660-1920: 10 good examples

Data journalism is playing a role during the Coronavirus outbreak on informing users who, from their homes or jobs, are following its fast spread. How were journalists and scientific using charts, maps or diagrams to represent this information back in 1660? Below I’ve gathered 10 examples of four different epidemics.

1. Visualising number of cholera deaths

During the 19th century, cholera spread across the world after its origin in India. Suddenly, big cities such as London or New York were hit by a high number of deaths in a small period time. Disease outbreaks were spreading out quickly and, at that time, the medical understanding was quite primitive.

In 1849, The New York Tribune published the below line chart to showcase the number of deaths in New York City from the cholera epidemic. Although the graph needed four paragraphs to explain the progress of cholera in the city, it’s using data journalism techniques to bring a topic closer to the audience.

Photo from ProPublica

In 1854, the below dot map by John Snow, who was not a journalist but a physician, gathered all cholera cases around the pump from the London epidemic to detect and illustrate its origin.


Wikipedia Commons

As Snow wrote:

The result of the inquiry, then, is, that there has been no particular outbreak or prevalence of cholera in this part of London except among the persons who were in the habit of drinking the water of the above-mentioned pump well.

In 1911, Larousse mensuel illustré published the below map to picture the sixth cholera pandemic that the world was living at that time:


Larousse mensuel illustré

Below some work from Sir Henry Wellcome and his people between 1890 and 1936 to document the cultural and historical contexts of health and medicine in England.

This diagram represents the number of deaths from cholera to 1,000 inhabitants living at the elevations expressed (in feet). It discovered a relation between the elevation of the soil and the mortality of cholera:

L0016434 Report on the mortality of cholera in England 1848-49.

Wellcome Collection

And the below shaded map easily shows the areas where the degree of mortality is the highest (such as Guildford, a town in southern England):


Wellcome Collection

Lastly, the below diagram represents the daily number of deaths from cholera and diarrhoea in Greenwhich:


2. Great Plague of London

In 1665 London lived the major epidemic of the bubonic plague, which killed almost a quarter of London’s population in 18 months.

The below solid line chart illustrates all deaths while the broken line shows the number of deaths attributed to the plague.


Wikipedia Commons

On the below chart map by Walter George Bell, you can see a geographical distribution on the total number of deaths indicated by gray shades:


Wellcome Collection

3. The Spanish Flu

In 1918 the influenza pandemic also known as the Spanish flu infected 500 million people around the world (27% of the population) and killed between 17 million to 50 million, being one of the deadliest epidemics so far.

The below chart shows the number of deaths per week in New York, London, Paris and Berlin:


National Museum of Health and Medicine

4. Asiatic or Russian Flu

In 1889 there was a deadly pandemic that killed about 1 million people worldwide, with its origin in Saint Petersburg.

The below map by Henry Parsons illustrates the epidemy between 1889 and 1890 worldwide, places and dates:


Wellcome Collection

Any more examples? Let me know in the comments or at @mcrosasb


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