The health of the general populace – rich and poor alike – in England in the mid-17th-century was as dire, by modern standards, as everywhere else in Europe and the wider world. Typical adult life-expectancy was 40 years or less; maternal mortality could be as high as 10%, and infant-mortality before five years of age was often upwards of 50%. The impact of the Civil War did nothing to help this; and neither did a fatalistic view that ill-health and early death were matters of God’s will, and the choice of God alone.
Yet within a few years of the advent of the Commonwealth, radical change was already underway.
There were many distinct sources for the change. In part the egalitarianism of the new Commonwealth meant that the previous disparities between the living-conditions of rich and poor began to be eased. In part the changing status of women meant that matters of more overt interest to women – in this context, the health of their immediate families – began to take on a higher priority than before. A more systematic approach to pharmacology and medicine also played an important part, following the rise of the sciences and ‘practical arts’ through the creation of new organisations such as the Royal Society. But perhaps most important of all was the impact of vinery – a technology that remained all but unique to the Commonwealth for all of that time. (See the separate knowledge-base article on vinery and health.)
The result was that by the end of that century, health in the Commonwealth was by far the best in Europe, and possibly anywhere in the world. It would be a century or more before other nations would begin to catch up.
Last Update: August 30, 2017