Bills of Mortality: London, 1664/5

Recording the rise and fall of the plague that struck London in 1664, a year’s collection of weekly Bills of Mortality comprise one of the first books to document the spread of human disease. It begins quaintly enough with the week-by-week listings of deaths in London from “winde,” “teeth,” and “ague” (fever). But as winter turns to spring, the first deaths from “plague” make their appearance, like a slow drumbeat that grows ever faster… until by the summer the great city of perhaps 250,000 souls is suffering thousands of plague deaths per week while still recording a handful of typical deaths from dozens of other types of illness and disease. The total ultimately peaks at 7,165 people in a single week in the sweltering August heat as rats bearing infected fleas invisibly transmit the unknown cause. The Bills of Mortality added something completely unique to understanding the spread of disease: context. For the first time in human history, patterns appeared in the data – not imaginary patterns like the constellations, but a mathematically precise and predictable mortality curve. The Good Lord wasn’t plucking people out at random, he was plucking them out on a plague curve. From this book comes the first true public health data set, and for the first time, the idea that public health could be charted and predicted. Patterns in the data were more important than patterns in the stars or patterns on your palm. From this came the probability industry, statistics and insurance. It changed the human imagination forever.

— Courtesy of The Human Face of Big Data, Smolan, Erwitt