Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Booknotes: Count the Dead

New Arrival:
Count the Dead: Coroners, Quants, and the Birth of Death as We Know It by Stephen Berry (UNC Press, 2022).

The doubling of life expectancy between 1850 and 1860 was "arguably one of the most consequential developments in human history, undergirding massive improvements in human life and lifestyles." From the description: "Examining the development of death registration systems in the United States—from the first mortality census in 1850 to the development of the death certificate at the turn of the century—Count the Dead argues that mortality data transformed life on Earth, proving critical to the systemization of public health, casualty reporting, and human rights."

While disease management and health care pioneers (ex. "Jenner and vaccination, Lister and antisepsis, Snow and germ theory, Fleming and penicillin") deserve, and have received, a great deal of credit for this revolution in human life expectancy, author Stephen Berry argues that "the lion's share of the credit belongs to the men and women who dedicated their lives to collecting good data." The main protagonists of Berry's narrative are not the giants of medicine but rather the collective host of critical data gatherers and organizers. Count the Dead "shows how a network of coroners, court officials, and state and federal authorities developed methods to track and reveal patterns of dying. These officials harnessed these records to turn the collective dead into informants and in so doing allowed the dead to shape life and death as we know it today."

Count the Dead is a slim volume of three main chapters (plus a prologue and epilogue) that can be read in a single sitting. The first chapter recounts the earliest effort at compiling a national death record for the US. Chapter Two examines wartime casualty reporting and how it affected the way in which American wars would be fought. The third chapter delves into class and racial disparities in death reporting.

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