The hazards of daily life: an historical perspective on adult unintentional injuries

Towner, E. and Towner, J. (2008) The hazards of daily life: an historical perspective on adult unintentional injuries. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 62 (11). pp. 952-956. ISSN 0143-005X Available from:

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Abstract Unintentional injuries are a major public health problem. This paper analyses coroners’ inquests from Sussex, England, for the period 1485–1688 to consider the circumstances surrounding adult unintentional injury deaths. Parallels with the situation today are examined. Travel was found to be the most hazardous activity, drowning was also highly significant and there were large differences between men and women. Previous SectionNext Section Unintentional injury is a major public health problem, with the burden especially large in developing countries and expected to rise during the coming decades.1 2 In this paper we examine adult injuries in early modern England to add depth to our understanding of this issue. Drawing neat parallels between the past and the present is too simplistic and we do not pretend that our historical data can offer more than a window on a past world. Nevertheless, we believe it provides a perspective on certain underlying problems of exposure to injuries, especially in the poorer parts of the world where everyday life is, in some respects, similar to that portrayed here. The paper analyses coroners’ inquest records for Sussex in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were selected because a substantial number are available and have been transcribed.3–5 We explore the circumstances of unintentional injury deaths of adults (people aged over 15 years), which complements a previous paper6 that looked at unintentional injury deaths of children in Sussex. Coroners’ inquests are an enduring feature of the legal and political world and have a major role in supplying injury data today.7 The office dates to medieval times and coroners were expected to hold inquests on homicides, suicides, unintentional injury and all sudden and unexpected deaths in their area. An inquest was held as soon as possible after the incident occurred, before a jury. Coroners’ records, however, have limitations. We need to understand more about the reality of how coroners operated and the process by which a verdict was reached.8–10 For our analysis, the survival rate of inquests in Sussex was uneven3–5 and this differential survival rate prevents an analysis of trends in death during the 200-year period. Also, age was rarely recorded. In some cases the numbers we consider are small and must be treated with caution. However, the records are a rich source of information with nearly 450 individuals recorded for Sussex. Although the overall history of injury has been neglected,11 there has been some research on this aspect of public health before.12–18 There is also related work on suicides that provides insights into the coroner process.19–22 Furthermore, as Dobson23 notes, coroners’ inquests “tell us much about the hazards and stresses of life in early modern England”.

Item Type:Article
Uncontrolled Keywords:historical perspective, adult, unintentional injuries
ID Code:15792
Deposited By: C. Foyle
Deposited On:17 Jan 2012 15:33
Last Modified:02 Dec 2016 13:22

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