What were the Reasons for High Mortality in the Past?


It has already been pointed out that, up to the nineteenth century, death rates all over the world were very high and fluctuating.

The main reasons for such high mortality rates were: (1) Acute and chronic food shortages, causing famines and conditions of malnutrition; (2) Epidemics; (3) Recurrent wars; and (4) Poor sanitary conditions.

(1) Famines and Food Shortages:


In the pre-industrial phase, man had limited control over his environment, and his food supply was profoundly affected by changes in weather conditions, such as droughts, floods, severe winters and scorching summers.

Agricultural production was also limited by other conditions such as inefficiency of labour pests and by plant diseases. Even when harvests were good, food could not be stored for the future difficult times to shortage, nor could it be transported to scarcity areas, since easy and cheap means of transportation were not available.

In Western Europe alone, 450 more or less localised famines were recorded from 1000 A.D. to 1882 A.D. The situation was even worse in Asia, where famine was an almost constant factor.

It has been estimated that during the period 108 B.C. 1911 A.D., China experienced 1,828 famines almost one each year.


Besides acute famines, conditions of severe malnutrition, resulting from continuous insufficient food supply, prevailed in all these countries, the stage of malnutrition weakening millions of people to such an extent that they fell aft 6&Sy prey.

Men suffering from food shortages, both in terms of quality and quantity, were unable to work efficiently. They thus lowered their own as well as their community’s income.

(2) Epidemics:

Since the beginning, mankind has suffered from communicable diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, small-pox, malaria, typhus, tuberculosis, pneumonia, yellow fever, plague, etc., as well as from childhood communicable diseases such as enteritis, measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, diphtheria, etc.


All these diseases were quite common until fairly recent times, and took a heavy toll of life. These diseases tended to spread rapidly in densely situated areas through personal contacts, community use of contaminated water and food supply as a result of the migration of persons and the movements of disease carrying flies from place to place.

Until 150 to 200 years ago, scientific knowledge about diseases did not exist, and nobody understood how and why an outbreak of a particular epidemic took place and how and why it spread.

Even in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a majority of the people did not receive any medical attention. Those who did had to expose themselves to such harmful methods as purging and bleeding.

(3) Recurring Wars:


Throughout mankind’s history, war has been an important factor affecting the population size. The effect of war on human populations is two-fold. First, death came to military personnel in the battlefield. Soldiers also died of wounds received in battle.

Deaths among military personnel were also caused by deprivation and diseases associated with wars. Some wars indirectly caused heavy civilian casualties through the spread of diseases carried by armies, through plunders and various other forms of social and economic disorganisation.

Hans Zinsser, the eminent epidemologist, is of the opinion that the courses of history has been shaped less by the acts of men than by chronic and epidemic diseases with which they had to contend as well as by superstitions and ignorance concerning medicine and sanitation.

In the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71, 13,000 amputations had to be performed, of which 10,000 were fatal. Napoleon was utterly helpless in his fight against typhus, pneumonia, dysentery and scurvy.


(4) Poor Sanitary Conditions:

Throughout most of mankind’s history, sanitary conditions have been extremely poor. There was very little knowledge of the medical value of cleanliness. In pre- industrial times, the standard of living was low: the personal hygiene of the people was inadequate and communal sanitary facili­ties were absent.

All these factors contributed to extremely filthy environments, leading to epidemics and all kinds of diseases. Even if the early stages of industrialisation, large sections of the popu­lation lived in overcrowded dark houses close to factories.

These houses were poorly ventilated, damp and lacked light and sun­shine, and had poor bathing facilities and worse toilet amenities. Working conditions in factories were appalling.

The concept of personal cleanliness was practically unknown. Most people not only accepted dirt and in sanitary conditions of life as being normal, but even obstructed the introduction of hygiene. Stink and nasty odors were taken for granted. The use of soap was almost unknown in the thirteenth century.

It may thus be concluded that food shortages, various types of death-dealing epidemics and in sanitary hygiene conditions resulted in high levels of mortality from the beginning of the history of mankind.

In recent years, however, man has triumphed to a great extent over these factors. As a result, mortality throughout the world has substantially declined.

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