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So I wonder what happened in the mid-18th -19th centuries that changed this. Changes to the general population from industrialization and the accompanying increases in accidents, occupational toxins, tenements, and accompanying disease and stress?

Bill Gardner

I think the question has been much debated, and if I can quickly get up to speed on it, I will.

Cash McCall

This is a bit like saying that for ducal families up to 1750, auto accident fatalities were no better or worse than they were for the general population.

Of course not. There were no cars and few effective tools for fighting disease. Once we developed better medical technologies (and safer cars), wealthy people got more, and benefited disproportionately.

Bill Gardner

Hi Cash,
Thanks for the comment. I think that is roughly his point. But, why 1750? One might have expected that aristocrats would have survived longer before 1750. Warmer clothes? More / better food? Bodyguards? The physiological benefits of higher status, if there are any? Moreover, were there effective tools for fighting disease in the late 18th century?

Peter Sheppard

At the risk of being Cassandra before my time ... does Harris's work allow for comparison with a larger pool of the generally well to do, say, extending the analysis toward the members of the lesser nobility, or to the clergy? I've always been impressed by the great ages Pepys attributed to the clergy recorded as dying in his time ... I've assumed that (after the age of 5) there were professions and lifestyles, albeit small in number, that enhanced longevity; which frankly the ducal families may not have tended toward (especially given the periodically violent nature of British politics until after 1745)

uff the fluff

This doesn't seem like nearly enough evidence to prove that social status has no inherent effect on lifespans. To throw out the Whitehall studies or "Length of life and the pensions of five million retired German men", among others, seems rather premature.

However, if true, this points to a past that was much more fundamentally egalitarian than is commonly thought. Very interesting.

uff the fluff

Perhaps the intrusion of high social status individuals into the lives of the common people and status imbalances in general were less likely to effect everyday living conditions, thereby negating any negative outcomes? It's hard to see what new technological benefits became available to the nobility in 1750(http://perfline.com/textbook/local/mvinas_chronol.htm#18TH), but not hard to imagine that their reach was greatly increased by the early industrial revolution.

Daniel S. Goldberg


It has indeed been much debated, and in exactly the context you are writing about here!

I would Google "McKeown Thesis" as a way of beginning, and if you want the definitive treatment that directly links it to contemporary social epidemiologic work on the social gradient of health, run to the nearest library and check out Simon Szreter's Health and Wealth: Studies in History & Policy (University of Rochester Press, 2004).

Bill Gardner

This is what is so great about blogging -- you start conversations where learn what you need to read. THANKS, DANIEL!

Bill Gardner

I too am skeptical of Deaton's quick (implied) dismissal of Marmot's work.

Bill Gardner

I am not an historian, but it would be very interesting to look at the chances of dying by violence before 1750 as a function of profession and class. For example, perhaps there were norms that meant that clergy did not become involved in duels?

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