Public Health and Public Discourse: Contesting the London Bills of Mortality, c. 1603-1836
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The London Bills of Mortality are the longest-running continuous source regarding mortality and cause of death in any early modern city. Published weekly from 1603 until the 1830s, the Bills endured beyond their initial purpose as a plague tracking device to become the most important documents mined by English political arithmeticians and environmental physicians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These writers frequently criticized the accuracy of the data contained in the Bills, yet repeatedly failed in their attempts at reform. Using a broadly chronological approach, this thesis assesses why the Bills of Mortality endured largely unaltered for over 200 years. It argues that the success of the Bills was due to the pragmatic nature of their administration, which was based on local parish structures, while suspicion of the arbitrary powers of the state in matters of public health prevented substantial reform for the duration of the eighteenth century.