The Death by Numbers project at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) within George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) provides evidence of the quantitative mindset that developed in England at the turn of the 17th Century with the distribution of mortality statistics that were widely read by the people of London. The statistics were published by London city government officials on a weekly basis in broadsheets titled the Bills of Mortality which provided counts of death recorded by each parish in London along with the cause of death.
The Death by Numbers project is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and is led by principal investigator Dr. Jessica Otis, Assistant Professor of History in the CHSS Department of History and Art History. At the core of the Death by Numbers project is the digitization of massive amounts of mortality data gathered from weekly death counts that were collected and recorded in 147 parishes in England between 1603 and 1752. A team of students ranging from undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates have been transcribing mortality data from photographs of the original Bills using specialized software called DataScribe. This software module creates validated, structured datasets from historical sources formatted in a manner that is manageable and accessible for computational analysis. The DataScribe software was developed by RRCHNM under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Dr. Otis and her colleague Dr. Lincoln A. Mullen, who is Associate Professor in Mason’s Department of History and Art History, were principal investigators in the development of DataScribe.
Dr. Otis explains that an important benefit of using DataScribe is that the module eliminates mistakes that would likely occur if data from original historical source material were to be transcribed manually. Errors such as misspellings, insertion of an extra space by mistake, using a small letter when it should be capitalized, or any number of small, inadvertent errors can lead to inaccuracies and make for a “messy” dataset. Dr. Otis emphasized that DataScribe facilitates a “clean” transcription producing a dataset that has an inherent structure ready for computational analysis.
The Death by Numbers project has provided research opportunities for over a dozen students who transcribe data from the Bills. Dr. Otis indicated that some students on her team have branched off in conducting their own “miniature research projects” focusing on specific aspects of the Bills that have captured their interest. Some of these students have written blog posts on their individual research, and some have presented at conferences, according to Dr. Otis.
In describing her interest in the Death by Numbers project and its significance, Dr. Otis stated, “This is fascinating to me because as part of the broad narratives about the rise of quantitative thinking, this is evidence of quantitative thinking at a massive scale.”
She continued, “To me, at its heart, the project is a perfect Venn Diagram of everything that I do as a scholar. It is digital. It is historical. It is mathematical. It is pedagogical. And it even has an element of service in that the goal is to make this dataset widely available to other scholars from not just the humanities but across all the disciplines. So, it’s historical at heart but intended for an interdisciplinary audience.”
While the Bills of Mortality were initially published and distributed by London city government officials to quantify death counts resulting from plague, over time the numerical information in the broadsheets expanded to cover parish-by-parish summaries of deaths from a variety of causes. This included tuberculosis, malaria, drowning, childbirth, suicide, accidents, weather-related events, and other conditions. The expansion of the statistical information contained in the Bills offered people an opportunity to track and compare the number of deaths occurring from different causes. For example, the number of London residents who died from malaria could be compared with the number of individuals who died from tuberculosis. In so doing, people were able to get a sense of the comparative quantifiable risk of dying from one disease versus another.
An important figure at the time in the study of mortality risk was John Graunt, considered by many historians to be the founder of demography, the statistical study of human populations. During the 1660’s, Graunt conducted statistical analyses of the data in the Bills to determine whether any trends or variations in death counts could be observed and whether the reported numbers could be deemed accurate. His work provided a foundation upon which a calculation could be made on a person’s risk of dying from a particular disease or condition and showed how that risk might vary with an individual’s age or demographic.
The death counts in the Bills also provided clues regarding the environmental or climatic conditions that existed in London at the time the broadsheets were published and distributed. Dr. Otis explains that an uptick in the death counts of people who died from rickets, which is associated with a Vitamin D deficiency, suggested that London may have been very smoggy at one time and as a result people may have experienced reduced exposure to sunlight that would have adversely affected their ability to naturally synthesize Vitamin D.
In addition to mortality and disease statistics, the Bills evolved to publicize other types of information—most notably, the government-regulated price of bread. This was an effort on the part of London city officials to fight price gouging to ensure that the cost of bread would remain affordable to residents, especially those who had little money and those who did not have the ovens and equipment necessary for making their own bread.
To learn more about Death by Numbers, please visit the project’s website where you will find blog posts, updates, and an inside look at the transcription process.
February 28, 2023