Timing of Mortality Improvements among the European Scientific Elite in the Sixteenth to the Early Twentieth Century

Robert Stelter , University of Basel
David de la Croix, Université Catholique de Louvain
Mikko Myrskylä, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

When did mortality start to decline, and among whom? We build a large new dataset with 33,462 scholars covering the fifteenth to the early twentieth century to analyze the timing of the mortality decline and the heterogeneity in life expectancy gains among scholars in the Holy Roman Empire. Among the key advantages of the new database are that it provides a well-defined entry into the risk group, and the opportunity to deal with right censoring. After recovering from a severe mortality crisis in the seventeenth century, life expectancy among scholars started to increase as early as in the eighteenth century, or well before the Industrial Revolution. This fluctuation in mortality directly influenced life expectancy and the number of scholars who survived and thus had important implications for the society's capacity for knowledge accumulation and diffusion. Our finding that members of scientific academies -- an elite group among scholars -- were the first to experience mortality improvements suggests that 300 years ago, individuals with higher social status already enjoyed a lower mortality. We also show, however, that the onset of mortality improvements among scholars in the medical profession was delayed, possibly because members of this profession were exposed to pathogens, and did not have the knowledge of the germ theory that might have protected them. Both the advantage among the members of the academies and the disadvantage among those working in the medical profession disappeared during the nineteenth century, when mortality progress was experienced across the whole population.

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 Presented in Session 25. Social Gradients in Mortality and Family Formation