Life Expectancy and Diseases in Glarus

For centuries, people's lives were threatened by recurrent epidemics (plague, cholera, typhoid fever, smallpox, etc.). The situation was exacerbated by severe famines after poor harvests. Mortality rates were high and varied widely from year to year (e.g. depending on weather and harvest conditions). Infant and child mortality in particular was enormous, and on average only one of two newborns lived to adulthood. Above all, the plague that had been recurring since the middle of the 14th century was feared. She claimed many victims and at times left entire regions to desolate. The plague reached the canton of Glarus in August 1611 and 1629. 900 people died in Glarus alone in the plague year 1611. Thus Hilarius Wild (1570-1611) also died the black death in August. During the plague in 1629, another 1,600 inhabitants died of the disease in the country of Glarus.

The frequent war campaigns in Europe, but also feudal exploitation, further reduced the life chances of broad sections of the population. However, even then - as today - the rich lived longer than the poor. Thus, in the 17th century, 305 of 1000 people from the upper class (higher officials, upper and middle middle classes) reached the age of 60. In the middle class (petty bourgeoisie, craftsmen, qualified workers) there were 171, and in the lower class (unqualified workers, henchmen) only 106 out of 1000 experienced their 60th birthday.

The pattern of a population repeatedly decimated by epidemics and famine did not begin to change gradually in Europe until the end of the 17th century. The end of the deadly waves of plague was an important step. In 1720 the last European plague epidemic was recorded, which thanks to quarantine measures only reached Marseille and the surrounding area. However, crop failures followed by local famines or infectious diseases such as smallpox, cholera or typhoid fever continued to hit 18th-century people hard. In the 18th century, smallpox epidemics directly or indirectly fell victim to 15-20% of each birth cohort. In the 18th century, however, the spread of epidemics and famines was gradually curbed, although the risk of death for infants and children remained high. However, a definite increase in life expectancy did not take place until the first half of the 19th century, as constant armed conflicts or the impoverishment of urban and rural lower classes repeatedly increased mortality rates.

Egyptian plague of boils in the Toggenburg Bible of 1411

A decisive factor for the long-term effective repression of premature death was improved nutrition for broad sections of the population. The beginning of the process towards higher life expectancy was closely linked to the modernisation of agriculture. Thanks to better management of the land, the introduction of new fodder crops, targeted breeding of dairy cows and the gradual spread of potatoes, the 'food gap' began to close. Despite their growing numbers, the people were able to feed themselves more abundantly, and they were better protected against famines.


In various regions of Europe, the emergence of homeworking also ensured the standard of living of the population. In Switzerland, for example, the decline in mortality in areas with extensive homework (such as Glarus) began first, as it enabled women and men to feed themselves more abundantly with little or no land. 


From the end of the 18th century, attitudes towards illness and death gradually changed. Instead of fatalistic and passive acceptance, an enlightening belief in progress was replaced by activist attitudes towards disease control.


Despite a gradually improved nutritional basis and increased hygienic efforts (e.g. with regard to wastewater and waste management), the average life expectancy at birth remained comparatively low in many places well into the 19th century. Chronic infectious diseases remained virulent until the beginning of the 20th century. Young men and women, for example, were often victims of pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease that caused about 10% of all deaths in the late 19th century and was thus the main cause of death for young adults.


In the later 19th century, health policy campaigns (smallpox vaccination) and new standards of cleanliness and hygiene were implemented. This improved the chances of reaching a higher age. At the beginning of the 20th century, 36% of all male births reached the age of 60, and the figure for women was as high as 54%.

Infant Mortality Rate


A decisive factor for the low average life expectancy in earlier epochs was the high infant mortality rate. From 100 newborns died in the 18th and 19th century often more than 20-25 already in the first year of life. Gastrointestinal infections, in particular, were the main cause of many babies' disappearance. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, epidemic infectious diseases (smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough, etc.) became increasingly common childhood diseases, primarily threatening infants and young children. Those who survived their first year of life in the 18th and 19th centuries increased their life expectancy significantly because the survivors became immune to many infectious diseases.


The high infant mortality rate - mainly caused by digestive diseases - did not change much in most areas of Europe until the end of the 19th century. Infant and infant mortality increased even temporarily in many regions in the middle of the 19th century, mainly due to increased virulence of diphtheria and scarlet fever. A marked decline in infant mortality did not occur until the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century.

Infant and young child mortality was reduced in particular by a change in mother-child relationships. Changing breastfeeding habits (breastfeeding by mothers) and more intensive and hygienic infant care increased the life expectancy of newborns. Maternal care naturally affects the quality of child nutrition, as loving mothers in the 'bad old days' were more likely to seek cow's milk instead of feeding their children porridge. It also affects the degree of domestic cleanliness, as concerned mothers are more likely to dry out their children, keep their bed linen clean, keep pigs away from the cradle, and much more.

Around a quarter of all newborns died in the first year of life

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