What Would Have Killed You 100 Years Ago?

by | May 8, 2019

In many respects, the present is best time in history to be alive as a human (not the case for other species). Why? One reason is Spotify. Another one is that many of us wouldn’t be here if not for modern medicine. We don’t appreciate how sick and miserable we used to be and how many people died young. Related IFOD: Joy of a Non-Toothache

100 years ago was 1919. Just a year before, 1918, was the deadliest year in the history of United States, largely due to the Spanish Flu epidemic.

In 1919, life expectancy was 53.5 years of age for men and 56 years for women. And that was a big improvement from just a few decades prior when it was in the mid-40s. Now life expectancy at birth is 76 for males and 81 for females (however, note that life expectancy gains seem to have stalled or reversed as of late). Of course, a factor in the increasing life expectancy is the huge decline in infant mortality over the past 100 years. 100 years ago about 10% of infants died. Many others didn’t make it out of childhood due to illness and disease.

Source: CDC

The maternal mortality rate has had a huge improvement as well!

Source: CDC

An interesting thread I came across on Twitter a while back was people sharing what has happened to them during their lives that would have killed them 100 years ago. Some of the types of things that were shared:

  • My appendix burst a few years ago and I would have probably died if it was 100 years ago.
  • I had cancer. Treatment put it into remission. It totally would have killed me 100 years ago.
  • I had meningitis as a child. Would have killed me 100 years ago.
  • If I had been born 100 years ago I would have died young. My thyroid deviated my windpipe and esophagus.
  • I suffered a compound fracture of my leg falling off a horse. It might have killed me due to infection 100 years ago. If not, I would have been physically disabled – now I’m back to running every morning.
  • A hole in my heart was repaired when I was an infant. 100 years ago I’d be dead.
  • I had pneumonia last year. It probably would have killed me 100 years ago.
  • If I would have been born 100 years ago my Type I diabetes would have killed me.
  • I have asthma and every time I get a cold or flu I think about how it would have killed me 100 years ago.
  • I have Crohn’s disease. I’d probably have died a horrible death if born 100 years earlier.

These sorts of things don’t even take into account the infections WE DIDN’T GET due to vast improvements in the U.S. in water quality and sanitation. Also, penicillin was discovered in 1928. Prior to then, no antibiotics meant that many more people died of infectious diseases. There have also been great advances in vaccines in the past 100 years. People on Twitter didn’t note that they might have died of Polio, Tuberculosis or Smallpox.

Here’s the Top Ten Causes of Death in the U.S. from 1900 vs. 2010:

A few interesting points about the above chart. First, there’s a huge decline in overall deaths from the top 10 causes from 1900 to 2010. Second, the biggest causes of death have shifted from infectious diseases to chronic non-infectious diseases such as heart disease and cancer. This is largely due to living long enough to get these diseases (of course there are other drivers as well). Notably, 100 years ago many more people died of accidents and notably “fractures and dislocations” were a top cause of accidental death.

So – what has happened (or not happened) in your life that would have killed you if you had been born 100 years earlier?


  1. What a great article. Useful information. I live in Maine and am compelled to stroll through the old cemetery’s and wonder why so many people died under 20, or as infants. I new the flu made a huge impact, but some of the dates of birth and deaths in a family can paint a picture. As far as my history, there is no way I would have made it to the ripe age of 49 that I am now. Oral surgeries, C-section, crushed foot, any number of things. Thank you so much for putting this together and then sharing your personal story as well.

  2. Appendicitis at age 4 … would have killed me off!

  3. About a year after I wrote this IFOD I developed blood clots in my leg and my lungs. It probably would have killed me 100 years ago. Oh, and the clots weren’t due to COVID vaccine – they were due to a congenital defect called May-Thurner syndrome (I feel like I have to put that out there because I get asked that a lot).

  4. childbirth

  5. Profound near-sightedness beginning around age 7. Likely uncorrectable 100 years ago. I might not have outright died, but I’d have been stumbling around mostly blind and probably far more accident-prone.

  6. Heart defect, repaired in 2001. And I had my appendix removed in 1972. And I’m sure there are many other illnesses that would have killed me over the years without the help of modern medicine.


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