Army medical statistics: a 19th century mine of information

20/10/2014 11:50

We use statistics to build up our knowledge about society. This is an age-old idea of what statistics are for. In the words of Jan Ackersdyck, professor of statistics in Utrecht in the mid-19th century, statistics is the knowledge of true facts of great importance which should serve as a basis for measures which affect the welfare of citizens. He already recognised the role that statistics would later officially play: collecting facts as a basis for legislation and policymaking. 

Army medicals

In Ackersdyck’s time, statisticians in the Netherlands were still struggling to get a picture of society, as opinion polls did not yet exist. They managed as best they could, and statistics from the medical examinations of army recruits - one of the oldest statistics to be compiled in the Netherlands - turned out to be a big help.
These statistics are very informative. For example, they demonstrated high mortality rates within military barracks, much higher than rates elsewhere in the country, and hardly lower than mortality in the most notorious prisons. Medical professionals cited the military housing conditions as the cause of this high mortality. The statistics provided a number of social indicators. Doctors working on the advancement of medicine in the Netherlands did a study of why conscripts were rejected following medical examination. The aim was to get a better insight into the spread of disease. The study revealed a lot about the relationship between physical development and health and welfare, correlated with food conditions (rye prices).  Amsterdam doctor J. Zeeman (1822–1905) noted on the basis of these statistics that housing in Amsterdam could be built lower than in the countryside, as city-dwellers were shorter.  Zeeman plotted the heights of military recruits against bread prices and constructed the ‘military bakers accounts’, subsequently establishing that ‘bread matters more than people think’.

Historical standard of living

In 1880, the Ministry of the Interior published a study on the physical and intellectual state of the population based on military statistics. The first director of the Central Bureau of Statistics (now Statistics Netherlands) Coenraad Verrijn Stuart (1865–1948) conducted a study of illiteracy in the second half of the 19th century based on the relative number of soldiers who could not read or write.
And it was not that long ago that military statistics were used as a source in a historical debate on the standard of living. The height of a 19-year-old man combined the effects of nutrition, disease and labour history, and the height data were used as an indicator for biological standard of living. Vincent Tassenaar showed that until 1860, boys from the peat districts in Drenthe in the east of the country were taller than boys from the industrial cities in the west. He concluded that the food situation in Drenthe must have been better on average than elsewhere, and that the perception that the population in the province was reduced to poverty was an erroneous one. Hans de Beer used military statistics to establish a correlation between height - as an indicator of nutrition - and labour capacity. Merijn Knibbe used height data, the indicator for biological standard of living, for plausibility checks on his calculation of the nutritional situation of the Dutch population.  A discussion was even started on whether it would be possible to estimate national income on the basis of the increase in height.

This is an abbreviated translation of Een veelzijdige statistiek: de keuringsstatistiek van het leger


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Knibbe, M., ‘De hoofdelijke beschikbaarheid van voedsel en de levensstandaard in Nederland, 1807–1913’, in: Tijdschrift voor sociale en economische geschiedenis 4 (2007), nr. 4, 71–107.
Tassenaar, V., ‘Een zichtbaar onderscheid. Levensstandaard in Drenthe tussen 1820 en 1860’, in: Paping, R. (red.), De extreme armoede van arbeiders in de Drentse venen in de negentiende en eerste helft van de twintigste eeuw. Mythe of harde werkelijkheid. (Groningen 2000), 172–178.
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