NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Death and the City: Chicago's Mortality Transition, 1850-1925

Joseph P. Ferrie, Werner Troesken

NBER Working Paper No. 11427
Issued in June 2005
NBER Program(s):   DAE

Between 1850 and 1925, the crude death rate in Chicago fell by 60 percent, driven by reductions in infectious disease rates and infant and child mortality. What lessons might be drawn from the mortality transition in Chicago, and American cities more generally? What were the policies that had the greatest effect on infectious diseases and childhood mortality? Were there local policies that slowed the mortality transition? If the transition to low mortality in American cities was driven by forces largely outside the control of local governments (higher per capita incomes or increases in the amount and quality of calories available to urban dwellers from rising agricultural productivity), then expensive public health projects, such as the construction of public water and sewer systems, probably should have taken a back seat to broader national policies to promote overall economic growth. The introduction of pure water explains between 30 and 50 percent of Chicago’s mortality decline, and that other interventions, such as the introduction of the diphtheria antitoxin and milk inspection had much smaller effects. These findings have important implications for current policy debates and economic development strategies.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w11427

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