Study sinks myth of ‘women and children first’

So much for chivalry at sea. When it comes to shipwrecks and other maritime disasters, the widespread belief that women and children will be rescued first — largely popularized by the 1912 Titanic sinking — is a myth. Instead the reaction to such life-threatening emergencies can be more accurately described as ‘every man for himself’, according to Swedish scientists from Uppsala University.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the case of the Titanic, in which the vast majority of people saved were women and children, is a rare exception to the rule.

After analyzing a database of 18 notable maritime disasters spanning three centuries (from 1852 to 2011) and covering the fate of over 15,000 people of more than 30 nationalities, researchers found that overall, women and children on board were about half as likely as men to survive. Children, the findings indicate, tended to fare the worst.

And the notion of captain and crew saving passengers first, and if need be, “going down with the ship”? Also, a myth. Researchers found that members of the crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers.

So what accounts for the chivalrous behavior aboard the Titanic, where even the orchestra famously continued to play while the ship plunged beneath the sea? Researchers believe this is attributable to the captain’s example and his order that women and children must be saved first. (Not to mention this order was reportedly enforced by officers shooting at men who disobeyed.)

The only other exception researchers found where women had a survival advantage over men involved the Birkenhead, a British ship that went aground in the Indian Ocean in 1952.

Read more about the study (pdf).

Additional sources: Uppsala University news release; AP; LATimes