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Counting the Dead in Reformation London: 16th-Century Community Health Efforts

Date: February 20, 2014
Time: 6:00 PM - 7:30 PM

Refreshments at 5:30 PM


Kristin Heitman, PhD

Location: The New York Academy of Medicine, 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, New York, NY 10029, Room 20

The London Bills of Mortality are generally discussed in the context of the Scientific Revolution, especially as championed by the Royal Society of London. In particular, the Bills provided the data for John Graunt’s seminal work in demography and epidemiology (1662 et seq.), which the early Royal Society immediately claimed as one of its crowning achievements.

However, the City of London had begun collecting parish-by-parish mortality data some 100 years earlier, during the politically rocky period between the death of Henry VIII and the accession of Elizabeth I. As part of requiring a weekly report of every death from every parish across the city, London’s aldermen established a mechanism to determine the cause of each death, generating mortality counts for not just infectious diseases but chronic conditions, accidents and suicides. The city then used those data to establish an ongoing effort to optimize community health across a broad range of conditions. London had statistics, in short, some 250 years before the Swiss. This talk will trace the emergence of London’s methods from its unusually strong city charter and the close ties among its guild system, City officials, and the established church. 

About the Speaker(s)

Kristin Heitman, PhD, teaches the history of medicine and public health, critical thinking, and philosophy of science at The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, Maryland.  Trained in the history and philosophy of science at the Johns Hopkins University, she has held fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Johns Hopkins University.


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