Impact of industrialisation on London health

Has our health really changed over time?

To answer this question, a multidisciplinary research project investigated archaeological human skeletal remains from 22 sites across the UK. Funded through a generous bequest to The City of London Archaeological Trust (CoLAT) by the late Rosemary Green.

A new book explores archaeological assemblages of human remains to assess the presence in the past of lung diseases, cancer, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, obesity and fractures, which are all important health issues today thought to stem from our modern lifestyles.

The period of Industrialisation was a pivotal time, influencing all aspects of people’s lives and profoundly affecting the environment in which they lived and worked. With the curation of large scale collections of archaeological human skeletal remains at the Museum of London, and comparative skeletal collections from outside of London, it was possible to examine and analyse the skeletal remains of men and women who had lived through the Industrial era, enabling a unique perspective on the impact of industrialisation on the health of Londoners directly from their physical remains.

A radiographer operates an X-ray machine on an archaeological skeleton.

Wayne Hoban, radiographer, using a portable x-ray machine

The project applied modern medical imaging to the examination of 2,241 archaeologically derived adult skeletal individuals from the pre-Industrial (medieval) and Industrial (post-medieval) period, from London and non-Metropolitan locations. Digital radiography and Computer Tomography (CT) scanning were used to assess the consequences of industrialisation detectable in the skeletal remains of these individuals.

Only adults with an age and sex estimation were analysed, to enable them to be placed in to age cohorts of young, middle and old age adults. We could therefore discern health patterns amongst the men and women in the different age groups, over time and in relation to their geographical context, to assist in determining the factors important to the health of Londoners and the general population in the past and present.

Digital radiograph of pelves and sacrum showing mixed lesions of lucency and sclerosis indicative of metastatic bone changes, old adult male, Industrial London

Digital radiograph of pelves and sacrum

Showing mixed lesions of lucency and sclerosis indicative of metastatic bone changes, old adult male, Industrial London. (SB79 102) © Museum of London

CT scan slice of left pelvis with multiple lytic lesions indicative of multiple myeloma , old adult female,  Industrial London (FAO90 1360) © Museum of London

CT scan slice of left pelvis

With multiple lytic lesions indicative of multiple myeloma , old adult female, Industrial London (FAO90 1360) © Museum of London

Seven diseases were selected that are often associated with industrialisation, urbanisation, enriched lifestyles and old age to assess their prevalence over time:

  1. HFI: Detected using radiography and CT
  2. Osteoporosis: Detected using radiography
  3. Joint Disease: Detected macroscopically and radiographically
  4. Trauma: Detected macroscopically
  5. Neoplastic disease (cancer): Detected using radiography and CT
  6. Infectious disease (rib lesions): Detected Macroscopically
  7. DISH: Detected Macroscopically

These diseases were investigated to ascertain if and how their frequency has altered over time to the present day. Establishing patterns and trends provides a synthesised insight into the health status of the population, and specifically Londoners, in relation to rural and urban lifestyles, social status, technological and medical advances, hazardous environments, malnourishment and excess food, cancers and age related issues.

A new publication, Manufactured Bodies: the Impact of Industrialisation on London Health, reveals the findings from the archaeological assemblages and the large scale comparative data sets, and how they resonate with modern health topics. Issues such as air pollution, nutrition, sedentary lifestyles, technology and ageing are all pertinent today. Industrialisation has had serious consequences to our health and leaves an ongoing legacy: it is literally shaping our lives.

Book cover of a book dedicated to exploring the impact of industrialisation on London's health.

Impact of industrialisation on London health, by Oxbow Books

Manufactured Bodies: The Impact of Industrialisation on London Health can also be bought on online at Oxbow (digital versions are available to buy):

https://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/manufactured-bodies.html