Thursday, December 18, 2008

Memento Mori

While visiting the Philadelphia College of Physicians three years ago, I saw an exhibit on medicine during the early nineteenth century - a tie-in with the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition - which included a section on common causes of death, borrowed from the records of two Philadelphia churches. Such a morbid display might seem more suitable for Halloween than for a December weblog posting, but many of the listed causes of death are sufficiently vague and strange (not surprising, given the primitive state of early-nineteenth-century medicine) as to provide a bit of macabre humor. Particularly if you happen to be a fan of Edward Gorey.

And since a little Gorey-esque humor is always fashionable, I present, herewith, the "Diseases and Casualties in Christ Church and at St. Peters, This Year (25 Dec. 1802 – 25 Dec. 1803):"

Apoplexy (1)
Asthma (1)
Bilious Fever (4)
Bilious Cholic (1)
Child Bed (1)
Consumption (2)
Cancer (0)*
Dropsy (7)
Decay (25)
Drowned (1)
Fits (17)
Flux (4)
Fever (3)
Gravel (0)*
Gout (1)
Hives (6)
Hooping Cough (1)
Killed (3)
Lunacy (3)
Mortification (2)
Measles (4)
Nervous Fever (4)
Old Age (8)
Pleurisy (5)
Palsy (2)
Purging and Vomit (5)
Suddenly (1)
Scarlet Fever (4)
Sore Throat (4)
Smallpox (1)
Teeth and Worms (7)
Yellow Fever (11)

* Apparently, this list was a form or template, as it gave two causes of death that didn't apply to 1803.

The total is 139, though the two parishes counted 143 burials that year - one hopes that either the recorders made a counting error or that the four "extra" burials were of people who died the previous year. There were also 213 baptisms, so births outnumbered deaths by a 3:2 ratio. Nonetheless, Philadelphia, like most early modern cities, was a fairly unhealthy place to live, with a five-year average death rate (for 1793-98) of 40 per 1,000 - roughly equal to present-day Nigeria. (Billy Gordon Smith, Lower Sort: Philadelphia's Laboring People, 1750-1800 [Cornell UP, 1994], p. 206)

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