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Faculty of Economics

Wednesday, 20 September, 2023

One of the lead researchers, Dr Toke Aidt, is a University Reader, Director of the Keynes Fund, fellow of Jesus College, and current Acting Chair of the Faculty of Economics.

He says “It is fantastic news that we have won this grant. Britain was the world's first industrial society and pioneered the development of new water supply and sanitary technologies, characteristics that have given it an archetypal status in the history of public health and WaSH – or Water, Sanitation and Hygiene - interventions. This makes it a very good subject to study, particularly as the impact of these measures on Britain's mortality decline remains contested.”

This project will provide the first long-run account of the relationships between public investment in sanitation and water and mortality from faecal-oral diseases in Britain during the transition to modern levels of urbanisation.

Along with two academics from the Department of Geography, Dr Romola Jane Davenport, who is a leading historical demographer and who will be the PI on the project, and Dr Hannaliis Jaadla, who is a Senior Research Associate with expertise in historical demography, they will be joined by social historian Professor Bernard Harris from the University of Strathclyde, Department of Social Work and Social Policy.

Dr Aidt says “This grant will enable us to break new ground in understanding the link between public investment in sanitation and improvement in health for a period where very little systematic evidence is available. I am looking forward to working on this interdisciplinary project with Romola and Hannaliis from the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure(CamPop) at Cambridge and Bernard from the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at Strathclyde.”

The grant grew out of a Keynes Fund project, Market Failures and State Successes in Public Health and Highways 1830-1912 (JHOM) from 2016, along with the paper ‘New perspectives on the contribution of sanitary investments to mortality decline in English cities, 1845–1909’ by T. S. Aidt, R. J. Davenport, and F. Grey. It was published by the Economic History Review in 2023.

Dr Aidt adds; “Much of the difficulty in understanding the uneven progress of the 'sanitary revolution' in Britain and globally has been due to a tendency to lump together different types of sanitary improvements and causes of death. Our study will analyse specific disease outcomes over a much longer period than is conventional, from 1780 to 1930. This will make it possible to test whether industrialisation was associated with a rise in faecal-oral diseases, and whether early efforts to supply clean but unfiltered drinking water were sufficient to drive major falls in cholera and dysentery, which rely mainly on water-borne transmission.”

The Economic and Social Research Council, formerly the Social Science Research Council, is part of UK Research and Innovation, and the UK's largest funder of economic, social, behavioural and human data science. The full economic cost of the grant is £1,048,439.

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