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March 1, 2018

Diseases We Dread: Comparing 1888 and 2018

By In the Loop

The recent discovery of a Victorian-era pie chart shows that, thanks to ongoing advancements in medicine, the fatal diseases and illnesses of yesteryear have all but disappeared.

The recent discovery of a Victorian-era pie chart shows that, thanks to ongoing advancements in medicine, the fatal diseases and illnesses of yesteryear have all but disappeared. 


The world was a much different, simpler place 130 years ago. There was no email or Facebook. Or even Twitter. No shopping malls, rush hour traffic, or depressing 24-hour cable news networks. But there was a much higher risk of dying at a young age from a plethora of ailments that have now mostly gone the way of the dodo bird thanks to advancements in medicine.

In 1888, as reported by MinnPost data reporter Greta Kaul, diseases that inspired dread were very different. As evidenced by the recent discovery of a "Victorian era pie chart" that "shows how Minnesotans died in 1888," death certificates often included such culprits as diphtheria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, smallpox, scarlet fever, measles, rubella, and whooping cough.

Today, Kaul writes, Minnesotans (and others throughout the country) mostly succumb to "a different lineup of illnesses," such as "cancer, heart disease, unintentional injury and chronic lower respiratory disease."

Bruce Fye, M.D., emeritus professor of medicine and the history of medicine at Mayo Clinic, tells Kaul that change is due to several factors. The first and perhaps biggest, Dr. Fye says, is the advancements that continue to be made with antibiotics and vaccines. Kaul writes that progress in these areas has helped make "many of the big killers of Minnesotans of yesteryear" preventable or at least treatable. Things like malarial fevers, which Dr. Fye tells Kaul are "summer fevers that were a common killer particularly in the south" and were "actually what drove the Mayo family to Minnesota in the first place."

Another contributing factor, Dr. Fye says, is the "turning point" that occurred at the "tail end" of the 19th century. "It was around this time that the medical community was beginning to understand bacteria's role in causing disease," Kaul writes. "Use of microscopes started to become more widespread. It was around this time, too, that sanitation and public health became more of a concern." Those in the medical field also started paying more attention to the importance of more sanitary surgical procedures, Dr. Fye tells Kaul.

Another leading factor boils down to the shorter life expectancy of our ancestors. "They frankly didn't live long enough to get degenerative diseases," Dr. Fye tells Kaul. Even if they had, Kaul writes that the medical tools available to doctors for their care and treatment would have likely began and ended with a stethoscope. Leaving doctors "to what they could determine based on symptoms or autopsies," and leaving Kaul to conclude that, all things considered, "2018 is a better time to be alive and stay alive than 1888." (Cheers!)

You can read the rest of Kaul's story here. Then look alive by sharing your comments below before you use the social media tools to share this story with others.


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Tags: Community, Dr. Bruce Fye

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