Thursday, April 12, 2012

Women and Children First?

Edward Smith, commander of the Titanic
The commemorations of the sinking of the Titanic are frequent this year, which is only fitting considering it has been a subject of fascination for a century.

The disaster (which occurred on April 15, 1912)  has given fuel to myths about a certain maritime chivalry in shipwrecks such as "Women and children first" and "The captain is the last one to leave a sinking ship".

Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson, researchers at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, have timely issued a working paper entitled  "Every Man for Himself! Gender, Norms and Survival in Maritime Disasters" (PDF)  in which they have studied survival rates in 18 peace-time shipwrecks spanning from 1852 to 2011 and covering the fate of over 15.000 individuals of more than 30 nationalities.

In the study the researchers find that, with the singular exception of Titanic, the survival rates for women and children passengers is lower than for adult male passengers while the survival for passengers is lower than for crews, including captains (see figure 1).
The category "MS" refers to other shipping accidents excluding the Lusitania (which sank in less than 20 minutes).
The captain of the Titanic died, which is why there is no bar for the Captain in that column.
The best odds of survival on average in shipwrecks are those of the crew, followed by the captain, the male passengers, the female passengers and finally the children. Only on two ships was it an advantage to be a woman: the Birkenhead in 1852 and the Titanic in 1912.

As it turns out, the only reasons for the amazingly high survival rates for women, children and passengers on the whole i the Titanic disaster were due to the the personal ethics and bravery of captain Edward John Smith, who threatened to personally shoot any man or crew member who tried to squeeze ahead of the women and children.

Then we can go on to look at the survival rates for passengers on the Titanic by the class they were travelling in, (see figure 2 from Making Everything Easier; Titanic Passenger Survival Rates. Please note, the same numbers occur on several places but this compilation suited my purposes for the post) and perhaps draw a few more conclusions.


  1. This is an interesting piece of information. Judging by the statistics, it seems chivalry sank with the Titanic.

    It's hard to tell how I would react in such a situation, whether as a passenger, captain, or crew member. I'm guessing survival instincts would kick in and I would look out for myself. But I also would like to think that I am the kind of guy who would sacrifice myself for the sake of children.

    With that being said, I hope I never land in such a situation to find out!

    1. Well WD, I am not sure if we even can say that this particular chivalry ever existed, it could be that both these myths have been romantic fictitious stories all along.

      You are of course completely right, we have no way of knowing beforehand how we will react in these situations and hopefully we will never have to confront anything even close to it.

      However, it is somewhat reassuring to know that sometimes such difficult circumstances bring out the best in some - or even many - of us. We can only hope that we would conduct ourselves in a manner of which we would be proud.


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