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 & 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 & Vomit (5)
Suddenly (1)
Scarlet Fever (4)
Sore Throat (4)
Smallpox (1)
Teeth & 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, The Lower Sort: Philadelphia's Laboring People, 1750-1800 [Cornell UP, 1994], p. 206)

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