Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2018: Time After Time

Consumption, flux, and dropsy: counting deaths in 17th century London

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: (Published 12 December 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k5014
  1. John Appleby, chief economist1,
  2. Will Stahl-Timmins, data graphics designer2
  1. 1Nuffield Trust, London, UK
  2. 2The BMJ, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to: J Appleby john.appleby{at}

What can we learn from John Graunt’s seminal analysis, ask Will Stahl-Timmins and John Appleby

In 1662 John Graunt published a pamphlet called Natural and Political OBSERVATIONS mentioned in a following INDEX, and made upon the Bills of Mortality.1 His analysis of the records of deaths (“burials”) and births (“christenings”) in London was seminal. The rather plain looking pamphlet (fig 1) contained large tables of figures, from records collected weekly by parish clerks from 1629 to 1660. Causes of death included “King’s Evil,” “falling sickness” or simply “found dead in street.” Fig 2 shows the top 20 causes of death recorded in this dataset.

Fig 1

Title page of John Graunt’s pamphlet

Fig 2

Gravestones sized according to the top 20 diseases in the dataset. Calculations are based on area

Data accuracy

The tables presented in the report look rather like a spreadsheet—but one drawn by hand using a quill pen (fig 3). Pulling together hundreds of weekly records over decades enabled Graunt to pick out trends, to offer explanations for differences in mortality between areas of London, and to establish, for example, that around a third of all deaths each year in the …

View Full Text

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription