Week 8 – Nightingale’s Visual and Verbal Rhetoric

Brasseur, Lee. “Florence Nightingale’s Visual Rhetoric in the Rose Diagrams.” Technical Communication Quarterly 14, no. 2 (2005): 161-82.


In his essay, Lee Brasseur argues that Florence Nightingale’s success in persuading the British government to institute reform regarding sanitary conditions in military hospitals was largely based on Nightingale’s use of visual and verbal rhetoric.  After working as a nurse and administrator at the front of the Crimean War, Nightingale wrote a recommendation for the Royal Commission after months of “researching, consulting officials, interviewing hospital workers, and pouring over varying accounts of mortality” in order to clearly state which reforms should be made.  Because the government took no action on her recommendations, Nightingale published an annex to her report which 1) refuted opposition of doctors who disagreed with her statistics, and 2) convinced the government to implement reforms (164).

Nightingale’s annex systematically addressed the objections raised by the doctors by producing tables and figures complemented with descriptions.  Lee highlights the effectiveness of Nightingale’s visual rhetoric by focusing on her three “rose diagrams”.  The first rose diagram compared Manchester mortality to the Crimean War mortality by creating two graphs side-by-side to visually show the substantial difference in mortality rates.  It was especially effective because “the circular shape of the diagram [was] well-suited to showing the progression of the war in a time-based genre . . . like . . . [a] clock” (171).  Nightingale’s second rose diagram detailed “which portion of the mortality data for that month could be allotted to each cause of death,” thereby “help[ing] the reader understand the reasons for death” (171).  Additionally, Nightingale color-coded the different causes of death in blue, black, and red.  The third rose diagram included both comparative and progressive arguments:  progressive, by indicating the date when reforms were initiated, and comparative, by showing the difference between London’s military hospitals and hospitals at the military front (173-174).  Lee focuses on Nightingale’s verbal rhetoric by emphasizing how she combines a “straightforward, factual, and concise approach” with a strong emotional appeal in order to “influence the emotional response of her audience and to make the numbers in the diagram come alive” (176).  Her strategies effectively persuaded the government to establish four subcommissions to carry out her reforms.

This essay sheds light on the misconception that rhetoric is purely an “arts and humanities” construct that simply adds creative word-play to a text; rather, Lee provides Nightingale’s annex to her field report as an example of how rhetoric can both clarify information and persuade an audience.  I found the article especially interesting in light of our class discussion last week where we discussed how technical communicators often do a poor job of interpreting graphs and figures for their audience.  Nightingale’s first failed attempt to elicit reform resonated with me.  I was struck by how she readily jumped at the opportunity to revise and refine her argument by presenting the same information in a different way in order to appeal to her audience and achieve the desired response.  This act of refining the interpretation of results is paramount to our work as technical writers; indeed, learning to accurately interpret results and communicate those ideas to an audience is a highly desired skill in the world of work.  What is another instance where an audience that might need information clarified through visuals and enhanced by descriptive text?


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