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COVID-19 related information

COVID-19 related information

At the current time there is probably an exceptional level of public interest in the history of disease and mortality. For those who are interested we provide the following information on historical work relevant to the current pandemic.

The study of mortality, and hence disease, has been central to the work of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure ever since the Group's foundation in 1964 by Tony Wrigley and the late Peter Laslett. The history of mortality in England is better documented over a longer period than any other country in the world because of two monumental studies produced by the Group:

  • Wrigley, E. A. and Schofield, R. S., The population history of England 1541–1871: a reconstruction (Cambridge, 1989).
  • Wrigley, E. A., Davies, R., Oeppen, J. and Schofield, R. S., English population history from family reconstitution 1580–1837 (Cambridge, 1997).

The Cambridge Group book series, Cambridge Studies in Economy, Society and Population in Past Time, published by Cambridge University Press, contains a number of other important contributions to the history of disease, mortality and life expectancy.

The history of mortality, infectious diseases and long-term improvements to life expectancy is the focus of a major Wellcome Trust funded project led by Richard Smith and Romola Davenport. Davenport and co-authors have recently published papers on: smallpox, the early history of public health from an evolutionary perspective and mortality and urbanisation. Alice Reid, Eilidh Garrett and Gill Newton have also published on the history of mortality, including the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, and links between mortality, work and migration.

Leigh Shaw-Taylor has published a beginners' guide to the history of disease, epidemics and long-term improvements to mortality in a special issue of Economic History Review, with a summary of the article also available. Samantha Williams is currently working on the plague measures implemented in Cambridge during the seventeenth century.

Free to download special issues on the history of disease and mortality

Three leading economic history journals have published free to download special issues containing articles on the history of disease, epidemics, and improvements to life expectancy:

The Economic History Society has also published a series of blogs on the history of disease and a bibliography.

Podcasts with Campop members

Several Cambridge Group members have been interviewed for Chris Clark's History of Now podcast series:

Recent articles by Campop members

An introduction to the history of infectious diseases, epidemics and the early phases of the long-run decline in mortality

7th May, 2020

This article, written by Leigh Shaw-Taylor during the COVID-19 epidemic, provides a general introduction to the long-term history of infectious diseases, epidemics and the early phases of the spectacular long-term improvements in life expectancy since 1750, primarily with reference to English history. The story is a fundamentally optimistic one. In 2019 global life expectancy was approaching 73 years. In 1800 it was probably about 30. To understand the origins of this transition, we have to look at the historical sequence by which so many causes of premature death have been vanquished over time. In England that story begins much earlier than is often supposed, in the years around 1600. The first two 'victories' were over famine and plague. However, economic changes with negative influences on mortality meant that, despite this, life expectancies were either falling or stable between the late sixteenth and mid eighteenth centuries. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw major declines in deaths from smallpox, malaria and typhus and the beginnings of the long-run increases in life expectancy. The period also saw urban areas become capable of demographic growth without a constant stream of migrants from the countryside: a necessary precondition for the global urbanization of the last two centuries and for modern economic growth. Since 1840 the highest national life expectancy globally has increased by three years in every decade.

Looking for an explanation for the excessive male mortality in England and Wales since the end of the 19th century

21st April, 2020

Initial studies suggest that the increase in male death rates due to COVID-19 is higher than among females. In this article, published in Social Science & Medicine, visiting PhD student Valeria Maiolo and CAMPOP member Alice Reid put male excess mortality, by age and cause of death, into a long-term perspective.

The geography of smallpox in England before vaccination: A conundrum resolved

6th April, 2020

Quarantine and isolation measures against plague are well known, but similar more local measures were used in eighteenth century England against endemic smallpox, with success in southern but not northern England. Romola Davenport and co-authors at CAMPOP explore this in a recent article published in Social Science & Medicine.

The early history of public health from an evolutionary perspective

6th April, 2020

Attempts to curb COVID-19 draw on long-established preventive measures, in the absence of vaccines or cures. These measures were surprisingly effective against some of the most lethal diseases. Romola Davenport and Richard Smith explore the history and evolution of public health in a recent article.

Urbanisation and mortality in Britain, c.1800-50

3rd April, 2020

A new paper by CAMPOP member Romola Davenport has been published in the Economic History Review (online early). The paper addresses the question of whether mortality worsened specifically in industrial and manufacturing towns in the middle decades of the nineteenth century in England.

Using comparative data for British, European, and American cities and selected rural populations, the study finds good evidence for widespread increases in mortality in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. However this phenomenon was evident in rural as well as urban populations, and so it is unlikely to represent a simple trade-off between health and wealth during industrialisation. The paper suggests that documented changes in scarlet fever virulence may have contributed to the rise and subsequent fall of mortality.