The last published vital statistics of the century were certainly impressive.  According to a report from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore,  the 1998 American death rate  was 470.8 per 100,000 population, the lowest ever recorded. Average life expectancy reached a high of 76.7.  Deaths from AIDS were down 21 percent, homicides down 14 percent, and suicides down 6 percent.  Since 1980, infant mortality rates had declined by 40 percent.  Indeed, according to most indicators, our culture's war against death was going well.

According to the World Health Organization's 1997-1999 World Health Statistics Annual (see also the World Health Report 1998), life expectancy averages 64 years in the developing nations and is approaching 80 years in some industrial nations. As can be seen from the information provided at this site, the causes and life-cycle timing of death are profoundly shaped by level of socio-economic development. Also shaped is the gender distribution of death.

As human life expectancies approach their biological limits, death comes increasingly to those who have lived full lives and who perhaps are more ready to die (perhaps even preferring death to continued existence) than earlier generations (See Brad Edmondson's "The Facts of Death," American Demographics [April 1997],  "A Profile of Death and Dying in America" from Approaching Death: Committee on Care at End of Life, and "Top 10 Causes of Death Among Adults Over Age 65" from  Click here for table showing life-expectancy changes over the past century.).  In fact, in the U.S. in 1996, one-quarter of the 2.314 million deaths that year were individuals 85 and older (up from 20% in 1985).  

Take a moment to digest and "play with" some of these statistics.  Things get interesting when you see how these indicators vary when broken down by various sociological categories.  For instance, when examining the longitudinal life expectancy data for blacks and whites observe how projections indicate that black females in the year 2050 will have reached the life expectancy of white females 50 years earlier, in 1996, and that in 2050 black males will only have reached the life expectancy of their white counterparts 70 years earlier, in 1980.  And what lessons can be learned from the various life-expectancy ratios in the table below?

     Life exp in: 1900 1996 FEM/MALE BL/WH
BL MALE 32.5 66.1 1900= 1.03;


MALE 1900=.70

MALE 1996=.89

BL FEMALE 33.5 74.2
WH MALE 46.6 73.9 1900=1.05;


FEM 1900=.69

FEM 1996=.93

WH FEMALE 48.7 79.7

Partially determining the life-expectancy figures is infant mortality.  A 2006 Save the Children report revealed that among 33 industrialized nations the United States ranks next to last in its newborn mortality rate, tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia with a death rate of nearly 5 per 1,000.   Japan had the lowest newborn death rate with 1.8 per 1,000; Liberia the highest with 65.  The rate among African Americans was 9, closer to the newborn mortality rates of developing countries.

Those who do die "prematurely," before old age, increasingly die of man-made (and, hence, theoretically avoidable) reasons, such as by accident, homicide, suicide, or lethal lifestyles.  In Australia in 1998, for instance, heroin overdoses accounted for nearly one in 10 deaths among those aged 15 to 44.  Click here to see the leading causes of death in U.S. broken down by sex, race, and age (and here to see how these causes have changed over the past century).  Accidents and violence now account for two-thirds of all deaths of Americans one to nineteen years-of-age. And those dying in old age increasing die slow motion deaths from chronic ailments such as Alzheimer's Disease (which is the 11th leading cause of older Americans' deaths), often dying socially-- as when institutionalized within a nursing home--before expiring biologically. Check out the Centers for Disease Control's Atlas of U.S. Mortality, featuring maps of the 18 leading causes of death in 1988-92 by race and sex broken down for Health Service Areas, and its Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2002 (which reports how the age-adjusted death rate of African Americans was 58% higher than for whites).  The CDC's Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System allows provides researchers with customized injury-related mortality data and leading causes of death reports.

Because of the historically relative scarcity of premature deaths due to "natural causes," there is an interesting cultural impulse to give consolation to those denied a normal lifespan, particularly children who are terminally ill or who have life-threatening ailments.  Institutionalizing this impulse are such wish granting charities as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Dream Factory Inc.

Click here for additional health statistics resources, such as the American Cancer Society's "Cancer Statistics for 2003", the National Cancer Institute's Atlas of Cancer Mortality in the United States, 1950-94, and the National Center for Health Statistics' Deaths: Final Data for 1998.

In early 2000, "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz died on the eve of the publication of his last stripMuralist Thomas Hart Benton died in 1975 the day after completing "A Social History of the State of Missouri" in the state capitol building.  James Fenimore Cooper and Marvin Gaye died one day before their birthdays. William Shakespeare, supposedly like Plato, died on his birthday. Actor Telly Savalas died one day after his birthday, and Louis Braille and Louis Armstrong died two days after theirs.  Coincidence or can death be postponed for social occasions?  According to the "death dip" research tradition of David P. Phillips, it can.  Broad summary and numerous resources are in Heather Royer's "Can the Famous Really Postpone Death?".

Increasing we hear the Greek Tithonius myth applied to the contemporary aging story. In this immortality parable, a beautiful young man asked Aurora, the goddess of morning, to make him immortal. She does. He ages continuously. Finally, pitying his never-ending dissolution, she makes him into a grasshopper. Instead of making the oldest of the old into grasshoppers, the medical establishment has produced a population requiring ever greater services with advanced age--including the million or more nursing home residents so disabled that twenty-four hour care is required, and the ten thousand individuals existing in irreversible vegetative states. National estimates reveal approximately one- quarter of the aged to be in need of some type of long-term care (U.S. Select Committee On Aging, 1987).

This Tithonius myth is poignant in light of media stories (e.g., Grandy, Denise. 1996. "A worm's life: Right mutation makes it long but very dull." New York Times [May 21]) of Siegfried Hekimi and Bernard Lakowski's studies of the "clock genes" of Caenorhabditis elegans, a small, short-lived worm. The biologists found in their numbers strains with five times the normal life expectancy. The characteristics of these slimy Methuselahs? They are so sluggish that males may not even have the energy to mate, reinforcing the notion that the longest lives are lived by those who live the least.

Indeed, our cultural thanatophobia is now thoroughly interwoven with our gerontophobia.

Unusual celebrity deaths
Who's Alive and Who's Dead--keeping track of celebrities' status

The Inequalities Revealed By Death

As mentioned elsewhere, death is the barometer by which we measure the adequacy of social life, such as when we compare cross-cultural death and life expectancy rates to gauge social progress, compare national homicide rates to infer the stability of social structures, or compare death rates of different social groups to ascertain social inequalities.  Some death statistics to ponder:

Here's an exercise to impress your prof. Obtain state life tables, which show life expectancy for each year of age broken down by race and sex. These can be obtained at the National Center for Health Statistics.  Look for "crossover effects," that is, the age at which a minority has a greater life expectancy than his or her white counterpart.  Correlate these with state median incomes for whites and blacks.


When you leave Houston Intercontinental Airport from the Mickey Leland Terminal, and fly to Dallas' Love Field and then to Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport, does it both you that all those people were killed in plane crashes?

--Lynn Ashby

Accidental deaths do not occur randomly but rather affect certain segments of the population more than others.  For example, being left-handed in a right-handed world shortens life-expectancy according to a study of Southern Californians conducted by Diane Halpern and Stanley Coren (New England Journal of Medicine, 1991).  They found right-handers living to 75 while left-handers live to only see 66--the latter being five times more likely to die (7.9% v. 1.5%) of accidents.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2000, blacks are less likely than whites to use seatbelts which may be why motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for African Americans under the age of 15. (Another group keeping tabs on traffic mortalities is the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, which maintains a Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).  

According to a report of the National Safety Council released in April of 2000, the number of non-driving related accidental deaths in homes and public places increased 21 percent from 1992 to 1999, reflecting the aging of the nation.  See the NSC's "What are the Odds of Dying?" from various types of accidents and injuries.  The National Safety estimates that the lifetime odds for someone born in 2001 dying of an injury to be 1 in 23.  

Click to see:

In 1999, 41,611 Americans died in roadway crashes. For in-depth statistical analyses of victims visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  For instance, one can even find driver death rates by model of car.

AirDisaster.Com--40 years worth of crash data here

crash"the Internet's first fully searchable online database of virtually every commercial airline accident in history"

NTSB Aircraft Accident Reports

The causes of accidental deaths derive not only from man-made sources but include assaults from nature as well.  Hundreds of Americans freeze to death each year.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 200 Americans die each year from excessive heat.  (During the hot summer of 2003 such deaths became politicized in France when the death toll nearly reached 15,000, prompting harsh criticisms about the failures of nation's health care system by the French Parliament.)  And seven times as many males as females are killed each year by lightning.  Click here for's Top 15 disaster news sites.


In 1993 there appeared in Times Square an electronic billboard tallying the number of gun-related homicides in the United States, where crude homicide rates are the third highest in the world--4 to 73 times the rate in other industrialized nations, according to researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics. Between 1976 and 1993, more of Americans were murdered in their native land than died on the battlefields of World War II. Homicide is currently the second leading cause of death among Americans 15 to 24 years of age, and the third leading cause among children 5 to 14.  According to a study by Child Trends, the infant homicide rate in the U.S. had been increasing over the prior three decades and in 2002 reached the homicide rate of Americans 15 to 19 years of age.  Whereas in the 1950s students got under their desks in nuclear war "duck-and-cover" drills nowadays, in the wake of the school shootings around the country, students now use their desks in rehearsing protective strategies against attacks of their classmates.

While homicide rates have generally declined in the West over the past few hundred years, Rosemary Gartner observes (in "The Victims of Homicide: A Temporal and Cross-National Comparison," American Sociological Review, 1990, 55:92-106) short-term upsurges in the early nineteenth and late twentieth centuries. The differences in rates between geographically proximate countries are intriguing: 40 percent higher for Australians than for New Zealanders, 50 percent higher for Italians than for Swiss, three times greater in Norway than in Finland, and four times greater in the U.S. than in Canada.

The question why American homicide rates are so high has, of course, preoccupied a number of social scientists. Among the reasons typically given include:

In the 1988, 1989 and 1990 NORC General Social Surveys, Americans were asked if they personally knew someone who had been murdered during the previous twelve months. Ten percent did: 8% of whites and 24% of African Americans (36% of those 18 to 29 years of age). Of those having a connection with a homicide victim, in 13% of the cases it involved a family member and in 40% it was a friend.

What impacts does knowing a homicide victim have? Not surprisingly, it increases individuals' anomie. When considering responses of those who knew and did not know one murdered in the prior year, those in the former category are significantly more likely to agree with the statements "In spite of what some people way, the lot of the average man is getting worse, not better" (by a 68%-59% margin, 81% vs. 56% among those in their thirties) and "It's hardly fair to bring a child into the world with the way things look for the future" (by a margin of 48%-37%, 53%-31% among those in their thirties and 71%-40% among those in their sixties). Generally this anomic effect increases with one's education.

Signs of the times: Ted Bundy figurine from Spectre Studios

Click here to see :



It's unclear nowadays what really constitutes a "natural" death. Is dying from smoking- related lung cancer classified as "accidental" (should there be one who has not heard of the risks), "suicide" (some say the habit is a slow-motion form), or natural, together with the non-smoking-related lung cancers? And what if these other lung cancers are due to environmental pollution caused by "dirty" industries? Are these deaths "natural" or might they be considered some form of homicide or unintended manslaughter? And how shall we classify the increasing numbers of medically-prolonged or -accelerated deaths, deaths where nature is not allowed to take its course? The American Hospital Association estimated in 1991 that some 70 percent of all deaths are somehow negotiated or timed.

site devoted to the life and times of Dr. John Snow (1813-1858), the legendary figure in the history of public health, epidemiology and anesthesiology In addition, let's not forget the role of microbes in shaping the course of human history. There are various sociological twists to these biological stories, such as the spread of disease with increasing international migrations, trade, and travel. Further, there's the drug-resistant bacteria now emerging from south of the border, where high-level antibiotic replacements for penicillin are sold over the counter. Researchers have established how drug-resistant bacteria, evolving from the heavy use of antibiotic supplements in animal feeds, are often transmitted from animals to humans. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, nearly half the antibiotics sold in the United States are for animals, most of which are later eaten by people. Finally, might our species be setting itself up for mass famine given the diminishing genetic diversity of the world's cash crops?


For most of human history, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--famine, pestilence, war and strife--regularly reduced any population growth (see Plagues Since the Roman Empire, keeping the Malthusian nightmare in check. Perhaps more than anything else, the central accomplishment of modernization has been to keep the first two horsemen at bay, consigning them either to mythology or to the Third World. We now believe that mass death is something we can control, that human ingenuity can keep the natural forces that kill us at bay. But this hubris of modernity has perhaps made postindustrial society more vulnerable to natural calamity when it does occur. The ability of deadly disease to break down the modern social order--to bring about suspicion, fear, and irrational behavior--has received its clearest demonstration in recent memory with the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. (For rich illustrations of such suspicions and conspiracy theories see the Rethinking AID$ Website.)  The American 1980s and 1990s will be remembered for how victims of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome became the modern lepers and how the seams of the social fabric unraveled in ways reminiscent of the Black Plague half a millennia earlier.

In 1995, AIDS became the eighth leading cause of death and the leading cause among all Americans aged 25 to 44, according to data from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. AIDS is also the leading cause of death in men and women in 79 of 169 American cities with populations greater than 100,000 population.  

More people died of AIDS in 1999 than in any previous year.  By mid-2001 things look even more bleak, with a record 3 million people worldwide having died of the disease the previous year, bringing the total to 21.8 million victims and leaving 12 million children orphaned. (For further national-level data, see the UNAIDS/WHO Epidemiological Fact Sheets by Country.)  Nearly 36 million people worldwide are infected by the human immunodeficiency virus, a figure that increases by over 15,000 each day.  Seventy percent of the planet's victims live in sub-Saharan Africa, where there are 12 women infected for every ten men (with the ratio being  5:1 among those 15 to 19 years of age).  The UNAIDS June 2000 Report on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic reports 7 African nations where adult infection rates exceed 20% and projects that fully one-half of all 15-year-olds in the most severely affected countries will die of the epidemic.  In these countries life expectancy has decreased by 20-30 years, delaying development by one-half century.  (Check the UNAIDS for its socio-economic impact and response to HIV/AIDS publications.)  For further socio-cultural effects see the International Labour Organisation's report HIV/AIDS: A threat to decent work, productivity and development(June 2000).

To observe how male and female behavior patterns affect the spread of the AIDS virus, try out the "HIV Simulator" brought to you by the New York Times.

HIV | InSite from U Cal San Francisco--the place to begin any research

UNAIDS AIDS Epidemic Update 2004

HIV/AIDS Surveillance Reports from the CDC

AEGIS--"the largest HIV/AIDS web site in the world"

The AIDS Epidemic at 20 Years: The View From America report from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation 

AIDS at 20 The New York Times looks at the pandemic

Salih Booker and William Minter, "Global Apartheid" in The Nation (July 9, 2001)

AIDS Virtual Library Main Menu

HIV/AIDS Treatment Information Service

AIDS Patents Project

AIDS Clinical Trials Information Service

AIDS Patients Project of the Center for Networked Information Discovery and Retrieval


Washington Post series "The New World of AIDS"

AIDS Memorial Quilt Gallery (with search engine by name or block number)

Viaticus, Inc.: Buying the life insurance policies of the terminally ill

The Viatical Settlement Page


Infectious AIDS: Have We Been Misled?


New York Times article on placebos and ethics of Western medical researchers using Third World peoples as research subjects

An Atlantic Monthly Forum, "AIDS: Privacy vs. Public Health"


Estimated risk for an American over a 50-year period.
Risk of death from botulism 1 in 2,000,000
Risk of death from fireworks 1 in 1,000,000
Risk of death from tornados 1 in 50,000
Risk of death from airplane crash 1 in 20,000
Risk of death from asteroid impact 1 in 20,000
Risk of death from electrocution 1 in 5,000
Risk of death from firearms accident 1 in 2,000
Risk of death from homicide 1 in 300
Risk of death from automobile accident 1 in 100

Source: Clark R. Chapman & David Morrison, Cosmic Catastrophes (Plenum Press, 1989)

Contributing to our millennium jitters are renewed fears of death from the natural order, either due to uncontrollable natural phenomena or because of human disruptions of ecosystems. Ecodoom is in, as is catastrophism. According to the National Geographic Millennium site, a rate of global extinction on par with the time of the dinosaurs' demise is already underway. If these scientific themes of time running out were to be made into songs, the Billboard Top 10 tunes would probably include:

  • "Where have all the brontosaurs gone?" Is it just me or do we as a people suffer from dinosaur-on-the-brain?
  • the quickening tempo of "Extinction Rap." According to the Millennium Institute, the count is up to 104 a day, with one-third of species doomed over the next decade.  In its 2008 Living Planet Index, the World Wildlife Fund reported that between 1970 and 2005, the planet's land based species decreased by 25 percent, marine species by 28 percent, and freshwater species by 29.
  • sung to the tune of the "Wizard of Oz's" "Lions and tigers and bears" is now "Asteroids, volcanoes, and plagues, oh my!." Have you noted the increasing asteroid squirrelies? It is intriguing to note that Latin roots of the word "disaster" are "evil star." Well, we've had our 1996 visit from Hyakutake, and watch out for Hale-Bopp and NBC's "Asteroid" in 1997!
  • Don't forget "I'm Steamin' in the Greenhouse Sauna." The cover of a book on the effects of global warming, called Our Drowning World, features the Statue of Liberty up to her armpits in sea water.
  • "Chernobyl Serenade" and "Watch Where You Bury that Hazardous Waste"
  • a popular song for beach-side listening is "Ozone Hole Tan Blues"
  • Longest on the charts is "Too many people." Biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted that in the 1970s "the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people will starve to death," has a new book out called The Population Explosion. He now predicts that runaway population growth will produce "a billion or more deaths from starvation and disease" and the "dissolution of society as we know it."
  • Newest release is "Freaky Frogs." Last October came reports of deformed frogs all across Minnesota and into Wisconsin, South Dakota, Quebec and Vermont, with scientists finding frogs with grotesquely misshapen limbs, tails, missing or shrunken eyes, and smaller sex organs.
  • And #10, premiering right here in San Antonio, Texas, is the "Great Butterfly Invasion."
From NASA: Asteroid and Comet Impact Hazards
Also from NASA: Natural Disaster Reference Database Home Page
Global Disasters Watch
Natural Disasters: Destructive Forces of Nature from ThinkQuest
World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine
The Garry Lab Web Pages-WWW Virology Servers
Catastrophism: The emerging science of origins
Ignatius Donnelly and the End of the World
Pan American Health Organization's When Disaster Strikes - Disaster Information
SOLIS - Stratospheric Ozone home page

Return to Kearl's Death Index