10 leading causes of death in 1850 and 2000

Fascinating display at the Reuben Fleet Science Museum in San Diego listing the top 10 causes of death in 1850, 1900, and 2000 caught my interest while on vacation.  Focus of their discussion is on the change over time, particularly the change from infectious disease to other causes.  Look at this list, with bold items being infectious diseases:


  1. Tuberculosis
  2. Dysentery/diarrhea
  3. Cholera
  4. Malaria
  5. Typhoid Fever
  6. Pneumonia
  7. Diphtheria
  8. Scarlet Fever
  9. Meningitis
  10. Whooping Cough

(Some of these are a bit obscure.  I would have to do an internet search to be able to describe typhoid and scarlet fever.)


  1. Pneumonia
  2. Tuberculosis
  3. Diarrhea
  4. Heart disease
  5. Stroke
  6. Liver disease
  7. Accidents
  8. Cancer
  9. Normal aging
  10. Diphtheria


  1. Heart disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Stroke
  4. Lung disease
  5. Accidents
  6. Diabetes
  7. Pneumonia/Influenza
  8. Alzheimer’s disease
  9. Kidney disease
  10. Blood poisoning

Fascinating.  I bet the 1850 list is representative of many years before.  For many centuries, you would probably die from some bug you caught.  My read is that sanitation and inoculations stopped that.    I would tie sanitation and inoculations together in terms of economic development.  In other words, as our society got richer, we could afford sewer treatment, clean water, and scientific research, which in turn removed the biggest causes from the top ten killer list.

You can characterize the current list of top killers as you wish.  What I see in the list is a lot of lifestyle issues.  I guess the advice we hear from our doctors (exercise, control your weight, and don’t smoke) would greatly reduce our risks from the top ten killers today.

Will ponder this some more in the future, particularly the impact from economic development and capitalism. (You knew I would turn the discussion that direction, right?)

4 Responses to 10 leading causes of death in 1850 and 2000

  1. […] Before the peak of the Industrial Revolution around 1850, heart disease was nowhere to be found on the list of top 10 killers in the U.S. By the Revolution’s end – and it’s impact on American daily life in full swing – heart disease consistently ranked in the top five, and has claimed the number 1 spot since 1920 (1,4). […]

  2. George Wilson says:

    While doing genealogy research ran across 1850 death census info for Washington County, Ind. 34 persons died that year in that county and 19 of them were 2 years old or younger. Causes of death tracked info in this article although some entries difficult to read. My sense was the early deaths were a result of poor diet, no immunizations and poor sanitation. Pretty much a triple whammy.

    • Jim Ulvog says:

      Hi George:

      Over half dying at under 3 years. Wow.

      In the few times I’ve walked through a church cemetery at a museum-type setting, I’ve noticed the first name of “baby” on headstones. Have read elsewhere (no citation) that in the time you mentioned and earlier, parents often didn’t give their child a name until well after they were born since there was such a high probability of the child not getting past infancy.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your findings.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: