The worst of times
Whereas we have found, that of 100 quick Conceptions about 36 of them die before they be six years old, and that perhaps but one surviveth 76, we having seven decads between 6 and 76, we sought six mean proportional numbers between 64, the remainder, living at six years, and the one, which survives 76 ...
John Graunt, 1662
What did our ancestors die of, and in what numbers? Occasionally we can get a vivid glimpse of an earlier time when mortality was appalling and the causes of death were very different from those faced by any population in the world today.
The draper John Graunt lived in London during the tumultuous years of England's Civil War and the grim dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell that followed it. He became fascinated by London's Bills of Mortality, which appeared weekly and which were consulted like traffic reports by the privileged who used them to calculate when they should flee the city.
In pulling the numbers together and looking for patterns in them, Graunt became the world's first demographer. He examined 2 2 of the years between 1629 and 1660. In his day an autopsy or coroner's report was a rarity. Instead, the information on cause of death was gathered by a sworn company of searchers, made up for the most part of 'antient matrons', who arrived at the place of death, made their determination, and (depending on whether or not they were literate) wrote down the particulars or else memorized them and told them to the parish clerk.
Though the searchers knew little of medicine, by long familiarity