Mortality and morbidity in the city of Bern, Switzerland, 1805-1815 with special emphasis on infant, child and maternal deaths

Rüttimann, D; Lösch, Sandra (2012). Mortality and morbidity in the city of Bern, Switzerland, 1805-1815 with special emphasis on infant, child and maternal deaths. Homo - Journal of Comparative Human Biology, 63(1), pp. 50-66. Jena: Elsevier 10.1016/j.jchb.2011.11.001

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This article contributes to the research on demographics and public health of urban populations of preindustrial Europe. The key source is a burial register that contains information on the deceased, such as age and sex, residence and cause of death. This register is one of the earliest compilations of data sets of individuals with this high degree of completeness and consistency. Critical assessment of the register's origin, formation and upkeep promises high validity and reliability. Between 1805 and 1815, 4,390 deceased inhabitants were registered. Information concerning these individuals provides the basis for this study. Life tables of Bern's population were created using different models. The causes of death were classified and their frequency calculated. Furthermore, the susceptibility of age groups to certain causes of death was established. Special attention was given to causes of death and mortality of newborns, infants and birth-giving women. In comparison to other cities and regions in Central Europe, Bern's mortality structure shows low rates for infants (q0=0.144) and children (q1-4=0.068). This could have simply indicated better living conditions. Life expectancy at birth was 43 years. Mortality was high in winter and spring, and decreased in summer to a low level with a short rise in August. The study of the causes of death was inhibited by difficulties in translating early 19th century nomenclature into the modern medical system. Nonetheless, death from metabolic disorders, illnesses of the respiratory system, and debilitation were the most prominent causes in Bern. Apparently, the worst killer of infants up to 12 months was the "gichteren", an obsolete German term for lethal spasmodic convulsions. The exact modern identification of this disease remains unclear. Possibilities such as infant tetanus or infant epilepsy are discussed. The maternal death rate of 0.72% is comparable with values calculated from contemporaneous sources. Relevance of childbed fever in the early 1800s was low. Bern's data indicate that the extent of deaths related to childbirth in this period is overrated. This research has an explicit interdisciplinary value for various fields including both the humanities and natural sciences, since information reported here represents the complete age and sex structure of a deceased population. Physical anthropologists can use these data as a true reference group for their palaeodemographic studies of preindustrial Central Europe of the late 18th and early 19th century. It is a call to both historians and anthropologists to use our resources to a better effect through combination of methods and exchange of knowledge.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


04 Faculty of Medicine > Service Sector > Institute of Legal Medicine
04 Faculty of Medicine > Service Sector > Institute of Legal Medicine > Anthropology

UniBE Contributor:

Rüttimann, Domenic Lukas, Lösch, Sandra


500 Science > 570 Life sciences; biology
600 Technology > 610 Medicine & health
900 History > 940 History of Europe








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Date Deposited:

04 Oct 2013 14:21

Last Modified:

02 Mar 2023 23:20

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URI: (FactScience: 211922)

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