Revisiting the changing body

by Bernard Harris (University of Strathclyde)

The Society has arranged with CUP that a 20% discount is available on this book, valid until the 11th November 2018. The discount page is:

The last century has witnessed unprecedented improvements in survivorship and life expectancy. In the United Kingdom alone, infant mortality fell from over 150 deaths per thousand births at the start of the last century to 3.9 deaths per thousand births in 2014 (see the Office for National Statistics  for further details). Average life expectancy at birth increased from 46.3 to 81.4 years over the same period (see the Human Mortality Database). These changes reflect fundamental improvements in diet and nutrition and environmental conditions.

The changing body: health, nutrition and human development in the western world since 1700 attempted to understand some of the underlying causes of these changes. It drew on a wide range of archival and other sources covering not only mortality but also height, weight and morbidity. One of our central themes was the extent to which long-term improvements in adult health reflected the beneficial effect of improvements in earlier life.

The changing body also outlined a very broad schema of ‘technophysio evolution’ to capture the intergenerational effects of investments in early life. This is represented in a very simple way in Figure 1. The Figure tries to show how improvements in the nutritional status of one generation increase its capacity to invest in the health and nutritional status of the next generation, and so on ‘ad infinitum’ (Floud et al. 2011: 4).

Figure 1. Technophysio evolution: a schema. Source: See Floud et al. 2011: 3-4.

We also looked at some of the underlying reasons for these changes, including the role of diet and ‘nutrition’. As part of this process, we included new estimates of the number of calories which could be derived from the amount of food available for human consumption in the United Kingdom between circa 1700 and 1913. However, our estimates contrasted sharply with others published at the same time (Muldrew 2011) and were challenged by a number of other authors subsequently. Broadberry et al. (2015) thought that our original estimates were too high, whereas both Kelly and Ó Gráda (2013) and Meredith and Oxley (2014) regarded them as too low.

Given the importance of these issues, we revisited our original calculations in 2015. We corrected an error in the original figures, used Overton and Campbell’s (1996) data on extraction rates to recalculate the number of calories, and included new information on the importation of food from Ireland to other parts of what became the UK. Our revised Estimate A suggested that the number of calories rose by just under 115 calories per head per day between 1700 and 1750 and by more than 230 calories between 1750 and 1800, with little changes between 1800 and 1850. Our revised Estimate B suggested that there was a much bigger increase during the first half of the eighteenth century, followed by a small decline between 1750 and 1800 and a bigger increase between 1800 and 1850 (see Figure 2). However, both sets of figures were still well below the estimates prepared by Kelly and Ó Gráda, Meredith and Oxley, and Muldrew for the years before 1800.

Source: Harris et al. 2015: 160.

These calculations have important implications for a number of recent debates in British economic and social history (Allen 2005, 2009). Our data do not necessarily resolve the debate over whether Britons were better fed than people in other countries, although they do compare quite favourably with relevant French estimates (see Floud et al. 2011: 55). However, they do suggest that a significant proportion of the eighteenth-century population was likely to have been underfed.
Our data also raise some important questions about the relationship between nutrition and mortality. Our revised Estimate A suggests that food availability rose slowly between 1700 and 1750 and then more rapidly between 1750 and 1800, before levelling off between 1800 and 1850. These figures are still broadly consistent with Wrigley et al.’s (1997) estimates of the main trends in life expectancy and our own figures for average stature. However, it is not enough simply to focus on averages; we also need to take account of possible changes in the distribution of foodstuffs within households and the population more generally (Harris 2015). Moreover, it is probably a mistake to examine the impact of diet and nutrition independently of other factors.

To contact the author:


Allen, R. (2005), ‘English and Welsh agriculture, 1300-1850: outputs, inputs and income’. URL:

Allen, R. (2009), The British industrial revolution in global perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Broadberry, S., Campbell, B., Klein, A., Overton, M. and Van Leeuwen, B. (2015), British economic growth, 1270-1870, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Floud, R., Fogel, R., Harris, B. and Hong, S.C. (2011), The changing body: health, nutrition and human development in the western world since 1700, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, B. (2015), ‘Food supply, health and economic development in England and Wales during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica, 4 (7), 139-52.

Harris, B., Floud, R. and Hong, S.C. (2015), ‘How many calories? Food availability in England and Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Research in Economic History, 31, 111-91.

Kelly, M. and Ó Gráda, C. (2013), ‘Numerare est errare: agricultural output and food supply in England before and during the industrial revolution’, Journal of Economic History, 73 (4), 1132-63.

Meredith, D. and Oxley, D. (2014), ‘Food and fodder: feeding England, 1700-1900’, Past and Present, 222, 163-214.

Muldrew, C. (2011), Food, energy and the creation of industriousness: work and material culture in agrarian England, 1550-1780, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Overton, M. and Campbell, B. (1996), ‘Production et productivité dans l’agriculture anglaise, 1086-1871’, Histoire et Mésure, 1 (3-4), 255-97.

Wrigley, E.A., Davies, R., Oeppen, J. and Schofield, R. (1997), English population history from family reconstitution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s