Leading Causes of Death for Americans in 1900

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In July, the first U.S. case of polio emerged after nearly a decade. This month, President Biden declared Monkeypox a national emergency. COVID-19 continues to make headlines as hospitalization numbers increase and additional variants spread. (Read how COVID fatality rates compare with those of other diseases.)  

While today’s emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are at the forefront of Americans’ minds, some causes of death have plagued societies for centuries. Afflictions that were once ubiquitous and deadly are now less prominent due to public health advancements, antibiotics, and vaccination, while others remain a leading cause of death, even today. (These are the most dangerous diseases you can get on earth.)

To determine the leading causes of death for Americans in 1900, 24/7 Tempo reviewed decennial U.S. Census Bureau data on reported causes of death for that year, comparing that data with the same data for 1890.

Many of the most common causes of death in America at the turn of the 20th century are now considered preventable. Nine of the 30 most deadly diseases then can now be prevented by a vaccine. The use of antibiotics beginning in the 1940s also contributed to a decrease in disease severity for nearly a third of the ranked causes of deaths.

Conversely, some of the leading causes of death in 1890 and 1900 are still prevalent today. Heart disease, No. 3 on the ranking, is now the No. 1 leading cause of death in the United States, having held this position for many decades. Cancer at No. 8 and stroke (then called apoplexy) and No. 10 are also still leading causes of death in the U.S.

Comparing death rates between 1890 and 1900, there’s good news and bad news. For half of the most common causes of death, rates decreased over the decade; but for the other half, they increased. Rates of death from influenza (flu) showed the largest decrease; heart disease showed the largest increase.

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