I’ve been reading “The British Are Coming,” by Rick Atkinson, a history of the American Revolutionary War, which is a fantastic book.1 One thing that has struck me was how precarious life used to be. Of course, I know how disease and death was much more common in the past, from plagues and pandemics and accidents and war and childbirth. But as Atkinson relates the story of the Revolution, he always lists alongside the casualties from battle, how many more men and women died from disease. Almost 3 times as many Americans died of disease as from battle.2 Smallpox, typhus, dysentery, and other diseases were rampant in both prison camps and army bivouacs.
Summer was not the idyllic time of vacation then as it was it now because summer was when pestilence and vermin ran rampant. Winter was no respite because of the threat of cold and starvation. (Imagine never being able to get warm enough to sit anywhere without being bundled up.)3 Childbirth was fraught with danger and maternal mortality was a constant threat as was the death of newborns and children from all kinds of dangers.
And yet much of that has essentially disappeared in our modern age, at least in the developed world. Our medicine today would seem like magic to our colonial forebears and we are relatively free from the kind of mortality and suffering that they endured. (Relatively).