Scandinavian Working Papers in Economics

Lund Papers in Economic History,
Lund University, Department of Economic History

No 127: A Scientific Revolution that Made Life Longer. Schooling and the Decline of Infant Mortality in Europe

Jonas Ljungberg ()
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Jonas Ljungberg: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Postal: Department of Economic History, Lund University, Box 7083, S-220 07 Lund, Sweden

Abstract: This paper addresses the decline in infant mortality that occurred with a remarkable synchronization across Europe around the turn of the century 1900. It is the argument of this paper that this development is not just, as in the conventional view, the side effect of economic growth but could be derived through a cumulative chain of events, starting with the discovery of the germ theory. Mokyr has argued, that notwithstanding the ubiquitous impact of the germ theory in several fields, its first big effect, as a decline in mortality, came through changed behaviour in the household. What makes this plausible is that the turn-down occurred at the about the same time irrespective of the wide variations in levels of infant mortality, and irrespective of levels of aggregate income and economic growth. Growth was certainly crucial for sustaining the decline in mortality but the synchronized change of the trend draws attention to a shift in behaviour. A critical question for this argument is if the germ theory and its implications were so quickly and widely diffused. Schooling was an instrument for this diffusion and could be so since there existed an international movement around school hygiene which made the impact of the germ theory more pervasive than if it had only influenced via the curriculum. This hypothesis is supported by a cross-country model which singles out the enrolment in primary schools as an explanatory factor for the decline in infant mortality 1890-1910, and the more so when female enrolment is considered.

Keywords: infant mortality; longevity; germ theory; school hygiene; schooling

JEL-codes: I00; N33; O33

26 pages, February 20, 2013

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