There’s a cheap explanation for this

Data on the life expectancy of aristocrats in England has fascinated researchers for years. Before the 1700s, dukes and their families had about the same life expectancy as average Brits. So there was no gap in longevity between the rich and the rest of the population.

Then, over the next 100 years, this changed dramatically — and the rich began to pull away from the poor in terms of health.

The professional army.

Before about 1700 aristos were those who led everyone into battle, after, not so much.

And battle does have certain lifespan shortening attributes to it…..

31 thoughts on “There’s a cheap explanation for this”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    Did anyone go to war often enough for it to matter?

    It is more likely that 1. after 1700 engineers began to make a difference to people’s lives, while 2. factories were ruining everyone’s lives if they lived in an urban area. The rich could afford the first before anyone else and they were too busy torturing wild life to death to live in Liverpool.

  2. Hold on. There just never were many Dukes, so the statistical significance of the figures must be pretty poor. If they’d extended it to Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts and Barons, it might have been sounder.

    Here’s an alternative: the medieval tradition was for noblemen to live hugger-mugger with their social inferiors, eating together, spending a lot of time together in their public rooms, and so on. Fashions eventually changed, and noblemen spent more time in their own apartments, and ate more en famille. Result: better hygiene, less exposure to infection, and so forth.

  3. Maybe after 1700 something got invented that money could buy to help you live longer. Wasn’t there some economic divergence around this time where growth exploded? Maybe it’s all related??

  4. Precious few factories in 1700, they came late.
    Officers were predominately drawn from the aristocracy through the Napoleonic wars and later so its not that.
    I reckon deariem has it right

  5. @Tim Worstall: Plausible, but not obviously sufficient explanation. A good test would be to look at the life expectancy of just female aristos, compared to the female population as a whole. If that was the explanation, that gap should have existed prior to 1700 and the professionalization of the military would lead to the gap appearing for male aristos.

    @Social Justice Warrior: Had the same thought, but the date does not match. Medicine (expensive or not) was largely useless until about 1900, not 1700.

  6. A good test would be to look at the life expectancy of just female aristos, compared to the female population as a whole.

    But then the most significant cause of early female adult death was complications after childbirth – which would probably have been fairly similar regardless of class / income. In fact, given the horrendous state of maternity intervention, being able to afford a doctor was probably a risk factor rather than an intervener.

  7. SSA: I submit that for smallpox in particular the date does match.

    SE: Maternal mortality seems to have fallen a lot during the 18th century. The horrendous rise in iatrogenic puerperal sepsis in hospitals occurred with the widespread use of cadavers in teaching medical students during the 19th century.

  8. There’s studies that have shown that expensive professional interventionist doctors caused more deaths to posh mothers in birth than cheap non-professional midwifes used by the lower orders.

  9. @Social Justice Warrior: Yes, variolation (the first effective, if insanely dangerous, counter-measure to smallpox) came in around that time. But was smallpox still a sufficiently large cause of death in Europe to explain the effect?

  10. @jgh: It may be the case that some doctors are apt to intervene too aggressively, but the pendulum may have swung too far in the anti-doctor direction already. See, e.g.,

    From personal experience I can say that the lives of my two children were saved by awesomely expensive and aggressive intervention by a horde of extremely well-paid doctors. If my wife had been in the care of midwives instead, my children would certainly be dead and probably recorded as stillbirths.

  11. @ Rob- I assumme you’re joking but it actually coincides with the rise of the Whig party and the fall of the Tories. Both parties had been around for decades.

  12. Bloke in Costa Rica

    Halfway-decent sewerage systems have saved more lives, probably by an order of magnitude greater than one, than all the medicos in history. But they’re bloody expensive. So the nobs are more likely to get ’em first.

  13. The West End houses were memorably described as ‘floating on a sea of sewage’ in the early 19th C.

    Didn’t the great sewerage schemes affect higher and lower orders equally?

  14. Interesting.
    Of course, the biggest killer of armies before very recent times, amongst the military of a small number of highly developed nations, was disease. Resulting from soldiers living in close proximity with indifferent hygiene. And the period coincides with the growth of the cities during the industrial revolution. For the factory workers, much the same conditions as the military experienced.

  15. “There’s a cheap explanation for this”

    If there’s anything this comment thread shows it’s that there are a few possible explanations, and it’s an interesting question.

  16. Correlation is not causation.

    In recent times we witness the phenomenon where the very act of aging is what is making some people wealthy.

    If Warren Buffett or Bill Gates had died at 40 they would not have registered in the very rich. When they die now they will.

    So to a certain extent living a very long time is making people rich, not the reverse.

  17. So Much For Subtlety

    Bloke in Costa Rica – “Halfway-decent sewerage systems have saved more lives, probably by an order of magnitude greater than one, than all the medicos in history. But they’re bloody expensive. So the nobs are more likely to get ’em first.”

    Except Prince Albert died in one of the last big outbreaks of typhoid in Britain. Because the Royals, like many nobs, did not like new fangled things like plumbing.

    It is likely to come down to urbanisation. There is a literally textbook example where people compared the average life expectancy in Manchester around Marx’s time (something like 21) with that of what was then a rural village outside the town (something like 64). The Upper Class live with the rural farmers, not with the urban workers.

  18. Paragraph from the Greatest Essay in the English Language dealing with 18th/19th English rural v. urban mortality:

    “As to the effect of the manufacturing system on the bodily health, we must beg leave to estimate it by a standard far too low and vulgar for a mind so imaginative as that of Mr. Southey, the proportion of births and deaths. We know that, during the growth of this atrocious system, this new misery, to use the phrases of Mr. Southey, this new enormity, this birth of a portentous age, this pest which no man can approve whose heart is not seared or whose understanding has not been darkened, there has been a great diminution of mortality, and that this diminution has been greater in the manufacturing towns than anywhere else. The mortality still is, as it always was, greater in towns than in the country. But the difference has diminished in an extraordinary degree. There is the best reason to believe that the annual mortality of Manchester, about the middle of the last century, was one in twenty-eight. It is now reckoned at one in forty-five. In Glasgow and Leeds a similar improvement has taken place. Nay, the rate of mortality in those three great capitals of the manufacturing districts is now considerably less than it was, fifty years ago, over England and Wales taken together, open country and all. We might with some plausibility maintain that the people live longer because they are better fed, better lodged, better clothed, and better attended in sickness, and that these improvements are owing to that increase of national wealth which the manufacturing system has produced.”

  19. Edwin Chadwick reported in 1842 that “In Manchester, where we have seen that the chances of life are only 17 years,
    the proportions and varieties of meat consumed by the labouring classes, are as their greater amount of wages compared with the meat consumed by the labouring classes in Rutlandshire, whose mean chances of life are 38 years.” (page 101.) And that ” in the lowest districts of Manchester of 1,000 children born, more than 570 will have died before they attain the fifth year of their age…one twentyeighth of the whole population is annuaIly swept away…in the county of Rutland … the proportion of deaths is I in 52 of the population.”

    Which makes me wonder whence Macaulay, writing in 1830, got his numbers.

  20. @Social Justice Warrior: Good question, though the answer is probably lost to history as Macaulay, in the fashion of the time, did not provide citations, beyond referring to having consulted the statistical tables. It is possible that he got the numbers wrong, though given his reputation for, by the standards of the time, scrupulous and exhaustive research, I’d be disinclined to think so.

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