Map shows New Zealand with lowest death rate on earth in 1856, over 11 in 1000 dying

By Grant Jacobs 22/01/2010

Ian York is at it again with his old maps of disease.

Some time ago I showed you a map he featured, because it led to a chain of thoughts about our perception of disease, in particular in New Zealand and especially in my town, Dunedin. (See Monday potpourri: maps, malaria in the USA, cholera in Dunedin and vaccines.)


The latest map Ian has unearthed is a world map of overall death rates for 18561 (see his post The good old days). Ian focuses on an inset map showing yellow fever in the USA, where he is from. I’d like to look at New Zealand.

If you zoom in on the original the presentation of the data New Zealand ranks as the healthiest nation on earth, right down in the far-left corner. (The title text reads: “Comparative Value of Life in Different Countries. The population taken indiscriminately, disregarding age at death.”)



It shows greater than 11 in a 1000 (~113 per 10,000) people dying per year.

Today the annual death rate in New Zealand is approximately 7 in 1000.

As Ian suggests, explore the map. It’s fascinating.

It’s very high resolution; you can zoom in a long way. (Fans of old fonts might find it interesting, too.) Move your mouse over the map and a scale bar will appear that you can adjust to zoom in and out. To move the map, “drag” it.

There’s a trace of colonial times: the blue lines around the coast “indicate the foreign stations of the British Navy.”


The red lines mark the passage of cholera over time.

The New Zealand map isn’t quite right.

Each region “features” particular diseases. As you can see, New Zealand features scarlatina (scarlet fever).

The worst city in the world, of those listed, was Alexandria.

India features leprosy and, further south, beri-beri; Scandinavia cretinism and goitre. (This reminds me that I should write about cretinism sometime.)

Under ‘Smallpox’ in North America, it rightfully notes “very destructive to the Indian tribes”.

I’ll stop here to avoid spoiling you finding your own treasures. Go for it!


1. The map is from The physical atlas of natural phenomena by Alexander Keith Johnston, F.R.S.E., F.R.G.S., F.G.S. William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, MDCCCLVI (1856) and the scanned image is to be found at the The David Rumsey Collection, which hosts over 21,000 maps and images.

2. While a good improvement, I’m a little surprised it isn’t greater. The 1856 figure is consistent with the first on the Statistics NZ crude death rates table (which records 11.39 / 1000 in 1872, for non-Maori). The early statistics were apparently collected only for colonists, not Maori. If you look at lists of nations of the world by current death rates, NZ, while respectable, has no way near the lowest death rate, which is reportedly approximately 2 per 1000 (the actual number given varies). The reasons behind this are likely to be many; it would be very interesting to see a breakdown of possible reasons (I haven’t the time to even attempt this, I’m afraid, never mind it not being my speciality).

Most of the countries with a death rates higher than 11 per 1000 today are either poor, or at war. African nations feature strongly in countries with high death rates.

A selection of fun posts at Code for life (or with a health/medicine angle):

British homeopathy sceptics group aims for sugar high (with Dawkins video)

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

All this talk about 3-D movies and TVs is depressing

Time for disclaimers on remedies?, “alternative” or not

Ginkgo biloba does not stem loss of brain function in elderly

New decade cartoon: Calvin on scientific progress

Monkeys have a smarter way to eat bananas than most humans?

Explore ancient science books on-line

Neti pots now validated as sound science?

Book review: Buried Alive

Monkey business, or is my uncle also my Dad?

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