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?)

15 thoughts on “10 leading causes of death in 1850 and 2000

    1. Do you have any referencing to back up this info? I really want to use it in my work, but it has to be a scholarly source. Thanks.

      Jared Hawkins

  1. 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.

    1. 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.


  2. I find this post very informative. I would like to reference this information, but unfortunately, this website is not very scholarly. Do you have a reference for this information that I can use to make the information more credible? Thank you for your time.

    Jared Hawkins

    1. Hello Jared:
      Unfortunately, I have nothing beyond a display placard I saw at the Reuben Fleet Science Museum. I double checked the photo I took of the display – it does not contain any references or sources. That is a credible museum, so I am confident the display is based on good research. (For others reading this discussion, my comment is a fallacy called appeal to authority and does not actually increase the credibility of the information.) Sorry I can’t give you any more help.

      1. Hi again:

        Did some more checking for sources.

        Here is the overview of 1850 census:

        Another delightful resource is Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, which is linked on the page:
        PDF: https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/histstats-colonial-1970.pdf
        Part 1 zip: http://www2.census.gov/prod2/statcomp/documents/CT1970p1.zip
        Part 2 zip: http://www2.census.gov/prod2/statcomp/documents/CT1970p2.zip

        There is about 1,200 pages of data, stretching from 1970 back to about 1790.

        I browsed for a few minutes. A few fun tables I that caught my interest:

        *Population by decade and by year from 1970 back to 1790. (series A 1-5 and A 6-8 on page 8).

        *GNP (yeah, before GDP was used) by year back to the 1870s, in total and per capital, both in current dollars and in 1958 dollars. (series F 1-5, page 224).

        *Wholesale prices of select commodities from 1800 to 1970 (Series E 123-134, page 207)

        *Retail prices of select food, 1890 to 1970 (Series E 187-202, page 213).

        From browsing the explanations of the data on page 193, I think the food and commodity prices are current dollars. The blip I expected to see during the Civil War was present and overall inflation from early 1800s to 1970 was readily visible for many of the items, but not all. Radical technology breakthrough dropped the current dollar price of several items.

        Amazing stuff.

  3. Thanks for this interesting list.
    I had scarlet fever in 1961, and since my ma was an RN I was permitted home quarantine. I also contracted measles in 1960, shortly before the vaccine became available–105 degree fever, spots all over, delirium.
    Ma also had stories from her hospital work about typhus and typhoid fever. Surely you have heard of Typhoid Mary?
    It just goes to show how recent the antibiotic/immunization revolution is that there are quite of few of us with living memories of when it was different!

    1. Hi:

      Those are nasty diseases.

      I have a friend whose bones are misshaped and out of position due to polio. He walks with a horrible limp. Polio has essentially since disappeared for which we can all be thankful. Growing wealth funded research to find vaccines. Growing wealth funded improved sanitation.

      It is wonderful beyond description that most people have no idea what we are talking about when we mention scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough, polio, and smallpox. What a delight.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences.


      1. Also post-polio syndrome, where the virus reawakens and causes a recurrence of the original symptoms but not quite as severe, nevertheless can be fatal, is nearly forgotten because of these advances.
        While I am personally grateful, and we have all benefited, our COVID pandemic response has been crippled by a public health community in the US that is woefully ignorant about infectious diseases because of that success.

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