“Here ends the joy of my life,” ends the diary entry of John Evelyn, after his son Richard died on January 27, 1658.
Richard was their first-born child. He died young: “5 years and 3 days old onely, but at that tender age a prodigy for witt and understanding; for beauty of body a very angel; for endowment of mind of incredible and rare hopes.”1
Despite their “inexpressible grief and affliction” after Richard’s death, John and his wife, Mary, continued to have children together. They had another son – also named Richard – who died as a newborn. Again they were heartbroken; but it wasn’t the end of it. Together they had eight children; seven of them died.
The diaries of other parents recall similar hardship. Elizabeth Duncombe and her husband, the English politician William Brownlow, lived through some particularly tortuous periods: in just eight years between 1638 and 1646 they had seven children. All of them – Thomas, Francis, Benjamin, George, James, Maria, and Anne – died. William’s diary records speak of the parents’ heartbreak. When George – their fifteenth child – died in 1642 his father wrote “Thou O God hast broken me asunder and shaken me to pieces”.2 In total they saw 13 of their 19 children die.
The death of a young child has always been the most devastating tragedy mothers and fathers could experience.3 But just how common was it? How many parents saw their children die?
The visualization gives us the answer.4
Shown is the data for Sweden, but you can switch the view to any other country in the world using the ‘Change country’ button on the interactive chart. Sweden is a country that has particularly good long-run demographic data as it was the first country to establish an office for population statistics: the Tabellverket, which was founded in 1749.5
The total height of the orange and purple area shows the average number of children born per woman – the fertility rate.
The area in purple shows the answer to our question: it is the average number of children, per woman, that died in the first five years of their life.6
Throughout most of the 19th century Swedish women gave birth to more than four children, on average. During this period the child mortality rate was around one-in-four (though at times much higher). This meant that most parents saw one of their children die.
Parents losing one child, on average, is terrible. But this number actually underestimates the average experience of parents for three reasons:
First, many children died when they were older than five. John and Mary Evelyn lost their son, Richard, when he was older than five. More generally we document this in our post on child mortality in the past.
Second, this data presents the average number of children per woman. But not every woman was a mother – this means that many mothers had (and lost) more children.
Third, this data is restricted to more recent periods of history where we have good demographic records. By this time, the child mortality rate had already declined. Parents were likely to have lost even more children in the centuries before the annual data becomes available.
For some countries it is possible to go back further in time. In Sweden, in the mid-18th century 40% of children died before the age of 15. In France the mortality rate was about 45% at the same time and in Bavaria, in modern day Germany, half of all children died. At that time the average number of children per couple was often higher than 5, 6, or even 7 so that parents often saw several of their children die.7
This has changed dramatically over the last century. Child mortality and fertility rates have both fallen.
As the data in the chart shows, for Sweden the average has gone down to 0.006 child deaths per woman. What was once very common, became rare.
In this visualization you can change the country for which this data is shown and explore the trends in countries around the world. To compare the number of children lost per woman for several countries – and see the data on a world map – you can use this visualization. In most world regions it has become rare for parents to lose a child, but this is unfortunately not true everywhere.
The life stories of the Evelyn’s and of Elizabeth Duncombe and William Brownlow are heartbreaking, but they were unfortunately not unusual. Almost all parents saw one or several of their children die.
When I write about the history of child mortality some commentators speculate that the loss of a child might have not been painful in times and places where it’s common. This is not reflected in the diary entries of these parents. Seeing one’s child die has always been terrible for parents, also during the long period of humanity’s history when the death of a child was very common.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
– Shakespeare [The words of King John after his son dies at the age of eleven]