101 Facts About Ageing #20: Death In The 1600s

Posted on 28 July 2021

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an American sociologist, politician, and diplomat once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”. And we wholeheartedly agree. A shared set of facts is the first step to building a better world with longevity for all. In that spirit, we are creating a series that covers 101 indisputable facts about ageing, health and longevity.

Throughout most of history, humans have not kept detailed records of mortality and its causes. Some of the earliest regular recordings of deaths come from the bills of mortality – weekly burial statistics from the parishes of London, prompted by the outbreak of plague. These were published irregularly throughout the 1500s, then regularly from 1603 to 1858. In 1629 the cause of death was given, and age at death started to be recorded during the early 18th century.

Bill of mortality for the year 1665

In the ‘plague year’ of 1665, there were 97 306 recorded burials, of which 68 596 were deemed to be caused by (bubonic) plague. 5257 died from fever, 4808 from ‘consumption and tissick’ (consumption refers to tuberculosis, while tissick is cough), 2614 from ‘teeth and worms’ (teeth referring to children that died while teething), and 1288 from ‘griping in the guts’. 5 died because they were ‘distracted’. While not the most rigorous or scientific of data, these numbers clearly demonstrate the dominance of infectious diseases as a cause of mortality prior to modern medicine.

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