History.com - London in the 1600s was a crowded, disease-ridden city where residents succumbed to plague, tuberculosis and other urban pestilences. They also apparently died of lethargy, fear and sadness, if the 17th-century statistician John Graunt is to be believed.
Life was hard for 17th-century Londoners—and death came both often and mysteriously. Nowhere is this more apparent than in John Graunt’s “Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality,” a groundbreaking vital statistics text that helped launch modern demography. A 1679 edition of the treatise went on display at London’s Royal Society on Monday as part of an exhibition celebrating 350 years of scientific book collecting.
Born in 1620, John Graunt worked as a haberdasher, held a series of municipal position and served in the London militia. In the mid-1600s he began aggregating and analyzing the city’s weekly death lists, known as bills of mortality, and in 1662 he published the first edition of “Natural and Political Observations.” In the landmark report, Graunt calculated death rates, identified variations by subset and pioneered the use of life tables, which show predicted mortality for each age group. He observed, among other things, that women lived longer than men and that more than one-third of London’s children never made it past the age of 6.
“The book came about because Graunt realized that the data being collected in parishes in and around London was open to analysis and interpretation by the new class of ‘natural philosophers,’ or scientists, who, amongst other things, had founded the Royal Society in 1660,” explained Keith Moore, head of library and archives at the Royal Society. “Bills of mortality didn’t normally tell you things like age at death, which we would take for granted as being important. This kind of absence of information is very interesting and shows the problems that Graunt had to grapple with.”