Causes of Death in the 1940s

Lynsey Keep, RN

Compared to the 1930s, the causes of death in the 1940s were significantly less due to considerable advances in medical treatment, and the prevention and cures of many potentially life threatening illnesses.

Advances in Medicine

The 1940's saw historic advances in the management of health and disease, contributing to much lower mortality rates for that decade. Significant medications used to treat chronic conditions such as heart disease and cancer arrived in the 1940's.

Documented Causes of Death in the 1940's

  • Influenza - The influenza bug caused an epidemic between 1943 and 1944. Many lives were lost because of the spread of this virulent condition. It is believed that this was not caused by a new strain of influenza, but a further outbreak of a strain seen for many years before.
  • Lung disease- In the 1940's occupations such as those of a coal miner or chimney sweep were believed to cause significant lung disease. The high presence of sulphur in the coal contributed to many fatalities, primarily due to a lack of understanding of its dangers, or awareness of precautions to prevent illness.
  • Acquired infection - During the Second World War there was a significant increase in the incidence of social infections and diseases such as cholera, malaria and polio. These were believed to have been contracted by servicemen who were sent to serve in deprived countries, where such diseases were at epidemic levels. Infection was inevitable, as preventative vaccines had not yet been invented. These types of infection also contributed to significant child and infant death, as children had weaker immune systems to fight the diseases.
  • Dental health - Due to the poor provision of dental health care services, in some cases people died as a result of severe dental infection. Particularly during the war, people did not place high importance on dental health, as health care services in general were already stretched to the limit.
  • Fatal injury - Many causes of death in the 1940's were attributed to the war. Servicemen were victims of loss of limbs and substantial 'blast injuries' were common events, and those who suffered, died as a result of extensive blood loss. Fortunately, because of increased availability of blood and blood products, survival rates improved also.
  • Environmental accidents - These types of disasters particularly hit America. In this era, the emergency services and the military, were not as skilled as they are today in coping large-scale emergencies. Loss of life was inevitable when incidents occurred on such a grand scale. The 1940's saw incidents across the world where lives were lost as a result of:
    • Storms
    • Landslides
    • Floods
    • Hurricanes and tornados

    A Brighter Picture

    Causes of death in the 1940's reduced as the end of World War II evolved. Death rates lowered, and the incidence of diseases being acquired in foreign countries lowered as the troops began to return home and treatments were given.An increase in the provision of blood and blood products allowed those who sustained traumatic injuries and suffered extensive blood loss a better chance of survival. Pressure on hospitals was also reduced. Fewer casualties of war meant that the provision of basic health care resumed and people sought treatment for illness more readily.

    Medical Advances

    The 1940's saw advances in medicine that created significant reductions in diseases and other life threatening conditions.

    The first drugs to combat tuberculosis were introduced, aiding the treatment of a disease known to cause so many unnecessary deaths. Penicillin too was discovered, and this pioneered the introduction of similar remedies for infections. The introduction of penicillin was truly groundbreaking in the field of preventative medicine.

    Various advances in cancer treatment were found, and combination chemotherapy and other drugs used to significantly reduced cancer mortality were in use. For heart disease patients, the introduction of the pacemaker, and further advances in heart surgery meant a greater life expectancy for those who suffered.

    What for a time was evidently a difficult decade, predominantly due to war-related illness and deaths, was also an era of medical excellence. The 1940's will remain a memorable decade for many reasons.
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Causes of Death in the 1940s