Friday, 6 January 2012

Death by Mortification

During the 16th and 17th centuries, plague swept through England causing huge changes to the size and make-up of the population. It was deemed necessary for the first time, to record the numbers and nature of deaths in the capital. The first record of this type commenced in London on January 1st 1564 and ended the last day of December the following year. In that time 23,630 deaths were recorded, 20,136 of which were listed as plague deaths.

Cause of death continued to be recorded in subsequent years, eventually forming the 'London Bills of Mortality', which, whilst lacking a certain medical expertise, certainly provide a good read.  Look at this one from 1806 / 1807. Some recognisable causes of death are present; small pox killed 1297 people, old age carried off 1424 and cancer 83 for example.

However, there are a few odd and unusual ones worth mentioning. Mortification (the death of part of the body, probably in the manner of gangrene) did away with 210 individuals, whilst the Rising of the Lights (a spookier sounding condition there is not) killed one unlucky Londoner. Saint Vitus's Dance, an infectious disease causing jerky movements, also killed a single person. Four unfortunate people were apparently Frighted to death.

Of interest to me (of course) are the deaths attributed to 'Teeth', which amounted to 322 in 1806. Teeth were therefore the tenth most common cause of death that year. In other years 'teeth' made it to the fifth or sixth most common cause of death with hundreds dying from infections originating from abscesses and advanced gum disease. If we compare this to the modern day, deaths from tooth based infections are very rare - just eight people in the UK had dental related deaths in 2005. Oddly though, that's four more than were killed by some kind of unspecified 'Evil' two hundred years earlier...

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