Lifting the burden of disease. The modernisation of health in the Netherlands: Amsterdam 1854-1940


Time frame

May 2020 - February 2024

Project description

As the current corona crisis shows, the history of infectious diseases in western societies is far from over. However, we had somehow forgotten about that heavy burden of infectious diseases in the past, how heavy it was, and what it looked and felt like for people living with it. By the 1950s we seemed to have escaped from that burden, which caused life expectancy to rise significantly, even before mass vaccination programmes were introduced. The international academic debate on how we succeeded in lifting that deadly burden is raging with full force, mainly focussing on nutrition, economic factors, and public and private hygiene. A fundamental drawback of current research, however, is the use of highly-aggregated data, making it impossible to move beyond general outlines and explanations open to ecological fallacy. Recently, truly unique data have become available enabling us to contextualise death and disease at the individual level and to move beyond high aggregations and limited disease classifications set up by nineteenth-century health practitioners.

The project proposes a multi-perspective approach to these individual-level data, combining 1) a historical-epidemiological approach, 2) a life-course analysis of victims and survivors, and 3) a spatial analysis of death and disease at the city level. This novel micro-level approach promises to make an important breakthrough in the current academic debate on the determinants of the great leaps in life expectancy before the 1940s. This project, based on data for the city of Amsterdam between 1854-1940, will reveal the successes of the fight against infectious diseases, but also what remained of this burden before the start of the mass vaccination programme. The data for the city of Amsterdam are digitised by the volunteer-based Radboud Group Citizen Science for the History of Health. Our latest research is published in our monthly newsletter.

On each of the three approaches a postdoctoral researcher is working:

  1. The historical-epidemiological approach - Katalin Buzasi
  2. A life-course analysis of victims and survivors - Tim Riswick
  3. A spatial analysis of death and disease at the city level - Sanne Muurling


Picture of the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in Amsterdam at the end of the 19th century by George Hendrik Breitner

Advisory board

  • Dr Hannaliis Jaadla, University of Cambridge
  • Professor Bernard Harris, University of Strathclyde Glasgow
  • Professor Frans van Poppel, Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute


NWO Open Competition Grant


Prof. Angélique Janssens,