Health in England During the Scientific Revolution

The level of mortality of 17th century England was far higher than it is today. English life expectancy at birth the first half of the century was 36.4 years. If one succeeded in living until 30 one could expect to live another 30 years. In London the situation was worse. The high rate of mortality was comprised of infant deaths: (Between 149 and 160 of every thousand infants died in the first year of life), a high level of maternal mortality, and death as a result of epidemics of plague and the ague (various fevers like malaria). Apart from immigration, the population of London was actually declining during this period.

Added to the mortality figures, the state of health of the living was also poor. Those who survived the various epidemics and fevers suffered from uncomfortable chronic conditions for much of their lives. Morbidity affected all classes especially in cities. A person from the working class was old by the age of 40. The biographies of most of the luminaries of the period point out their individual ill health, but few recognize how widespread ill health was among the general population. The diaries and memoirs of the time give many indications of the fact that the vast majority of those who lived beyond 40 suffered from debilitating chronic conditions. We will review only a few of the major figures, most of whom lived with chronic diseases into old age.

  • Francis Bacon, like many of his contemporaries, was in somewhat delicate health because he had survived serious fevers and other more minor complaints at frequent intervals, and famously died at age 65 of a chill trying to find out how long a chicken could be preserved by stuffing it with snow.
  • René Descartes escaped early morning classes as a child because of his poor health and later expressed a strong interest in the health consequences of his work. He died on February 11, 1660 at the age of 54 from a serious respiratory infection he contracted in the draughty castle of Queen Christina of Denmark.
  • Thomas Hobbes’ poor health until he was forty was followed by an increasing palsy that made his hands tremble so that he was forced, like Bacon before him, to dictate his writings. He lived to the ripe old age of 81.
  • John Locke (died age 71), himself a physician, was asthmatic and was given detailed regimens by Thomas Sydenham, who sent him to the country for long periods of recuperation.
  • Robert Hooke’s biographers describe his poor health as an infant and child and his stooped walk as a result of a malformed spine. His diaries record his constant struggle with a number of chronic and uncomfortable conditions including “giddiness, indigestion, flatulence, blockages in his nose and ears, occasional loss of the sense of taste and smell, headaches, heart palpitations, sore and watery eyes, noises in the head, fevers, chills and insomnia.”(Bio page 145) When well, he always attributed his recovery to God’s intervention. (Jardine page 89-90). Hooke died at 68.
  • Among Thomas Sydenham’s works was his clinical account of gout, based largely on his own experience.( Died at 65)

It is hardly surprising that many active participants in the scientific revolution had a strong interest in health issues and participated actively in research associated with it. The widespread incidence of ill health and chronic disease was tied to the hope that the new science would unlock some of nature’s secrets about the maintenance and recovery of health. There were some very powerful patients in the seventeenth century.

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One response to “Health in England During the Scientific Revolution

  1. Isn’t the level of mortality 100%? (That, of course, remains to be seen in the case of those in the minority condition of still being alive.)

    In a letter, Descartes explains that early in his life his studies were directed to overcoming mortality. He later came to understand, he reports, that a preferable attitude is calm resignation in the face of the inevitable.

    Given that most people died of pestilence, war, infant maladies, etc., back then, it was not at all a ridiculous hypothesis that mortality was unnatural. But this is of course a general argument, to which the valetudinarian condition (or haleness) of the arguer is of little relevance, and to which the counterargument could have been dredged up that terminating the life of men and women is natural for the maladies.

    War is another matter. It’s resistance to the logomacopia is a good subject for contemplation.

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