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Infographics existed before you thought they did

From an erotic hanky to a cranial contour chart, via a tree of life, there are some curious examples of information design in our collection.

Words by Helen Babbs

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Saucy silk handkerchief

A silk handkerchief printed in black and gold  with words in the form of breasts.
Confession D'une Jolie Femme. Source: Wellcome. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

This hanky is graphic in more ways than one. Like a piece of concrete poetry, verse describing an erotic encounter is laid out in the shape of a pair of breasts. The words are those of the French poet, Évariste de Parny, who is best known for a collection of love poems called Poésies érotiques (1778).

Prism of many colours

A photograph of a page from a book, with a hand drawn graphic in the centre, showing a many-coloured prism.
The Arrangement of Colours Through a Prism and the Chromatic Scale, James Sowerby. Source: Wellcome. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Early naturalists struggled to find an accurate way to measure colour when examining specimens. James Sowerby's solution was to create this prism. It provides a simple, reliable and easily replicated tool for identifying colours.

Early infographic

Two colour-coded, circular, connected charts expressing causes of mortality from April 1855 to March 1856, and from April 1854 to March 1855.
Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, Florence Nightingale. Source: Wellcome. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

These diagrams are taken from Florence Nightingale's book, Notes on matters affecting the health, efficiency, and hospital administration of the British Army: founded chiefly on the experience of the late war. An early pioneer of information design, Nightingale's polar area charts were a compelling way to present statistics, vividly conveying the high proportion of deaths caused by disease. She used them to campaign successfully for better conditions in hospitals.

Laws of variation

A black and white line-based graphic showing how species evolve.
The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin. Source: Wellcome. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

This evolutionary scheme appears in Charles Darwin's book, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, in a chapter called 'Laws of Variation'. Using a much more minimalist graphic approach in comparison to Haeckel below, Darwin's simple line diagram still has something of the tree about it.

Tree of life

Black and white drawing of a many branched tree, labelled with different plants and animals.
Evolutionary tree, Ernst Haeckel. Source: Wellcome. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

From his book, Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, Ernst Haeckel's tree of life shows the evolution of different species. The chart is split into three main categories: Plantae, Protista and Animalia. But the fact they are all part of the same tree, branching off the same trunk, suggests that everything is ultimately connected.

Tableau of eyeballs

A chart showing 54 differently coloured eyes, organised by colour from blue to dark brown
Tableau des Nuances de l'Iris Humain, Alphonse Bertillon. Source: Wellcome. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Showing a wide range of intricately coloured human irises, this table appeared on a fold-out plate at the back of Alphonse Bertillon's book, Identification anthropometrique: instructions signaletiques. A pioneer of forensic investigation, Bertillon was a French police officer who created a system for identifying criminals based on physical measurements.

Facial and cranial contours chart

A black and white, hand drawn chart showing different head shapes.
Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Willesden. Source: Wellcome. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

This diagram appears in the 34th annual report made by the Medical Officer of Health for Willesden in north west London. The report aims to describe "the vital statistics and sanitary condition of the urban district of Willesden for the year 1909", and this chart classifies people into "racial types" by the shape of their head. It's the work of Dr. Thomas Smurthwaite, a local man who the Medical Officer of Health for Willesden says has carried out a series of "anthropological investigations".

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?, at Wellcome Collection until 18 January 2018.

About the author

Helen Babbs

Helen is a Digital Editor for Wellcome Collection.