New exhibition reveals rarely seen account of life – and death – in 17th century London

05 December 2011

A new exhibition opens today featuring some of the most remarkable treasures from 350 years of book collecting at the Royal Society.

The exhibition includes John Graunt’s 1679 work Natural and Political Observations...upon the Bills of Mortality, which provides a unique insight into what London life – and death – were like in the 17th century.  Entries in the foldout tables of mortality in the book range from the amusing to the shocking:

  • 1648 apparently saw a single death from “itch” while in 1660 nine people died as a result of being “frighted”.  The tables bear several entries per year for unfortunate people who died of “lethargy”.
  • “Grief” was also a surprisingly common cause of death with over 200 cases recorded over a twenty year period.
  • In the decade from 1647-57 Graunt records almost 30,000 deaths from consumption (better known today as tuberculosis), especially shocking considering that the population of the City was probably no more than 350,000 at this time.
  • The rising numbers of fatalities attributed to smallpox – from 139 in 1647 to 1523 deaths in 1659 – bears testament to the vicious epidemic that would ravage London in the 17th century, not to be stemmed until Edward Jenner FRS’s development of a smallpox vaccination.
  • The tables list around 20 deaths a year from the “King’s Evil” (now thought to be another form of tuberculosis) – though Graunt is keen to put such superstitions to rest, declaring in his introduction that “the opinions of Plagues accompanying the Entrance of Kings, is false, and seditious”.

Graunt’s book is a pioneering work on medical statistics.  The 'bills of mortality' were weekly lists of deaths and their causes that occurred in the City of London.  Graunt’s work got the disciplines of medical statistics and demography off the ground, both disciplines which proved vital in the huge advances in public health and disease management over the last few centuries.  However, despite its revolutionary impact, the book is little known and rarely seen in public.

Other parts of the book address problems that Londoners still grapple with today, including the problems of running transport through London’s ancient infrastructure (“the old Streets are unfit for the present frequency of Coaches”) and the problems caused by London’s ever-increasing population (“London, the Metropolis of England, is perhaps a Head too big for the Body, and possibly too strong”).

Natural and Political Observations is just one of the astonishing treasures to be seen in the Royal Society’s new exhibition.  The exhibition also includes Newton’s handwritten corrections to his Principia, the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, rarely seen anatomical engravings by Albrecht Dürer, Galileo’s revolutionary Starry Messenger, Robert Hooke’s stunning Micrographia plus many more incredible books from 350 years of collecting at the Royal Society library.   Many of the books have never been publicly exhibited before.

Professor Jonathan Ashmore FRS, Chair of the Royal Society’s library committee, said: “Graunt’s book reminds us that the huge advances in public health in recent centuries have had an enormous impact on urban living.  London was a very different city then from the metropolis we experience today – though its inhabitants clearly shared some of the same problems of overcrowding and traffic congestion!  We’re really excited to be celebrating 350 years of book collecting at the Royal Society with this exhibition of rare and often priceless publications.  Visitors shouldn’t miss this opportunity to see some of these extraordinary and wonderful treasures from the Royal Society archive.”

The exhibition runs until June 2012.