Mortality and the Industrial Revolution

mardi 27 octobre 2009 ·

The usual case made by many is that the Industrial Revolution allowed a great drop in mortality rates. It seems to be accepted wisdom, but is somewhat more complex that it has made to be. In population studies, the idea that economic growth and social change caused a considerable drop in infectious diseases is mostly defended with the The McKeown thesis . The main thrust of the argument is that we didn’t start breeding like rabbits, we just stopped dying like flies and it was not because of medical interventions, it was because of growth.

However, if that case is true in some part. Growth during industrialisation is often associated with factories in cities. A massive afflux of peasants to the cities with low levels of income is often seen as the first step of industrialisation. However, at first cities increased mortality rates because the infrastructures for containing diseases were lacking and progresses in public health had yet to materialize. In sorts, there was an urban penalty. However, it disappeared at the beggining of the 20th century. Agricultural advances explain a great deal of that change because of better nutritional intake. However, the main part was due to local governments developping public health infrastructures. An example would be that of opting progressively to stop using open sewers which acted as infections nests.

In some sense, I am arguing that a limited form of government intervention actually contributed to the drop in mortality in industrialized Europe. To illustrate this, lets look at the cities of Hamburg and Bremen in Germany in the 1890s. A cholera epidemic brought by Russian emigrants in sealed trains plagued Hamburg. City fathers rejected quarantine measures and refused to invest in basic infrastructures like closed sewers. The effects was that 1.6% of the Hamburg population died (8600/625,000) compared to 6 on 150,000 in Bremen who applied minimal intervention for public health structures. It is true that in some cities, private efforts developped to provide such a service.

The conclusion of all that is that science and economic growth are not all that sufficient, sometimes there needs for minimal intervention (I believe at local governments levels) to insure minimal protection of the life of individuals.

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Bryan Breguet est candidat au doctorat en sciences économiques à l’université de Colombie-Britannique. D’origine Suisse, il a passé les cinq dernières années au Québec au cours desquelles il s’est engagé en politique provinciale malgré le fait qu’il ne possédait pas encore la citoyenneté canadienne. Il détient un B.Sc en économie et politique ainsi qu’une maitrise en sciences économiques de l’université de Montréal. Récipiendaire de plusieurs prix d’excellences et bourses, il connaît bien les méthodes quantitatives et leurs applications à la politique.

Vincent Geloso holds a master’s degree in economic history from the London School of Economics, with a focus on business cycles, international development, labor markets in preindustrial Europe and the new institutional economics. His research work examined the economic history of the province of Quebec from 1920 to 1960. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the Université de Montréal. He has also studied in the United States at the Washington Centre for Academic Seminars and Internships. Mr. Geloso has been an intern for the Prime Minister’s cabinet in Ottawa and for the National Post. He has also been the recipient of a fellowship from the Institute for Humane Studies and an international mobility bursary from the Ministère des Relations internationales du Québec. Currently, he is an economist at the Montreal Economic Institute.

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