Mortality Rate Versus Age: An Historical Iowa City Human Population Study

Instructor Background Information

Between the gathering of data at the local cemetery, to the construction of comparative survivorship curves based on data from three historic periods in your town, to historical research on local mortality influences, to the extension of this research to national demographics and international population growth, this Field Study can be a rich and enlightening endeavor for students.

The four successive survivorship curves that students construct based on those born prior to 1850, those born between 1850 and 1900, those born between 1900 and 1950, and those born after 1950, will provide striking contrast across time. Higher infant mortality and higher mortality at earlier ages will typify the early period- with particular discrepancy between males and females. The latest period's sampling will show dramatic improvement in infant mortality, and a corresponding closure of the gap between male and female mortality.

Large sampling on the part of students (100 or more from each time period) may also reveal an aberration that will manifest as comparably high mortality among young adults in the early twentieth century. This is where background reading from history documents will bear fruit. Obituary notices from corresponding years will profile epidemics that may have swept the area and left their marks at the cemetery.

When historical biographies are coupled with obituary notices of the times, students should be able to base survivorship and mortality curves on typical maladies which have been since wiped out, and the health programs that were in place at that time to address such illnesses and accidents. From such sources, it is possible to determine that infant survivorship prior to 1900 was only an 80% surety contrasted to current 99% surety. Moreover, life expectancy for a female at the turn of the century was 49 years on average, whereas today it is 79 (Edmondson, 1997).

From there, an ambitious group may pursue more demographic information from the literature and web sites provided and elsewhere, to project survivorship (based on gender, age, race, region, occupation, etc.) into the next millennium. An amalgamated summary of some of the included sources depict three basic factors that enable us to prognosticate an alarming population growth picture based on changing survivorship:

  1. human capabilities to expand into new habitats
  2. a great variety of techniques for increasing the carrying capacity in existing habitats, and
  3. our medical and agricultural sidesteps of limiting factors on the human population.

Students should, by the completion of this field study, be prepared to extrapolate their findings, and the ramifications of their projection, into the next generation and beyond.

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