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Accurate statistics help us to predict the behaviour of future outbreaks.

The Black Death (1348-50) was the worst pandemic of the medieval period, but there are no records that can help us analyse it in detail. Our best estimate is that 40-60% of Londoners died – around 35,000 people.

By the next great London plague in 1665, more thorough records of deaths give modern scientists more substantial data to work with.

The mid-19th century cholera outbreaks mark further advances in data collection. Individual studies, such as John Snow’s research into cholera cases in Soho, played a role. In 1837 recording the cause of death became required by law, with the creation of the General Register Office for births, marriages and deaths. The methods used by their chief statistician, William Farr, to analyse death and disease have become standard tools for epidemiologists today.

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Mortality bill for week from 12 September 1665
Here we see the bill for week 39 of 1665, giving a summary of all causes of death.

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Seal-top spoon, 1661-65

This spoon is inscribed ‘…1665 when dyed at London of the Plague 68,596’ on the front and ‘of all Diseases 97,306’ on the back. This contemporary ‘official’ total is an underestimate – we now think around 100,000 people died, about a quarter of London’s population.

London’s Dreadful Visitation…, 1665

A bound collection of the weekly bills of mortality for London in the plague year of 1665. The detailed records of the number of plague and total deaths for each parish make spatial analysis of the epidemic’s progression possible.

Museum of London