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?)

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