Mortality Transition Develpment since 1880
4 First Stage of Transition

This first stage, so called by Omran, has often been seen as a long period of essentially unchanging mortality contrasting with the events that followed. In fact, however, this was not an era without significant developments and we shall in the following demonstrate some permanent changes which took place in Finland during the last century and half of it.

For more remote centuries, information is scarce but a population history since the 1500s has been written by Jutikkala [7]. Periods of slow population growth alternated with reverses such as a famine in 1601 described by Voipio [44] and a prolonged and severe one in 1696-7, researched by Jutikkala [10] and Muroma [20] among others. The population of Finland which had been estimated at about 1/4 million in 1550, nearly doubled until 1695 but less than 400,000 survived the famine of the next two years [28, p. 21]. This was followed by the long war of 1700-21 between Sweden and Russia in which all of Finland was battleground and most of the churches and priest houses were burned down by the enemy whereby the archives were lost. On the basis of newly started registers, the period 1721-49 has been more thoroughly researched (e.g. [8, 9, 25, 29, 36]).

The era of pestilence earned its name from recurrent epidemic diseases as well as endemic ones which were little understood and for which there was scant remedy. In Finland they included smallpox, typhoid and paratyphoid fevers, the usual communicable diseases of childhood, dysentery and occasionally typhus and cholera [33].

Famine, caused by crop failure, was the underlying cause in some crises, particularly in the catastrophes of 1696-7 and 1866-8 although even then fewer died of actual starvation than from diseases [37] which were spread by people who left their homes in quest of food and to which they fell prey in their weakened condition. Apart from actual famine situations, however, the size of crop does not correlate well in this historical material [31, 34].

Another cause of catastrophic mortality were wars. Two wars were waged between Sweden and Russia in the period of our early life tables: 1789-90 and 1808-9. The casualties in actual war operations were relatively minor compared with losses from communicable diseases which attacked the combatants but became often even more devastating among the civilian population. The war of 1789-90 was waged in only one frontier province but when peace was made and the soldiers returned home, they spread disease and death among civilians [35]. The losses were very much higher in the second war when the two armies marched and fought back and forth across the entire country. From the peace years 1806-7 to the war years 1808-9 the number of deaths in the total population more than doubled (an increase of 126 percent). Among men of ages 15-39 the number of deaths tripled (an increase of 223 percent) but this increase accounted for only 10 percent of the total increase in deaths, and only part of it were due to combat wounds. Famines and wars of these periods can therefore be called "triggering events" [23] while most deaths were actually caused by infectious diseases.

Besides the constant and often violent fluctuations of the death rate, permanent changes and long-term trends can also be observed during the first stage of transition, particularly since 1750 when more precise data became available. Foremost among these was a significant decline in infant mortality. Strömmer has calculated for it in the period 1750-1850 a decidedly negative and highly significant (P < 0.001) regression coefficient while for the age-standardized general death rate the regression was only slightly negative and not significant (P > 0.05) [28, pp. 25-26]. Regression analysis of our life tables from 1751-60 to 1871-80 indicates a 23 percent decline in infant mortality. This notable achievement is generally ascribed to efforts of the medical profession to propagate breast-feeding or, more generally, to improvement in child-care practices [24, 32].

A fact of historical importance was the gradual control of smallpox through Jennerian vaccination which began soon after 1800. Epidemics of this disease which had been responsible for ten percent of all deaths in the eighteenth century, became less frequent and less lives were lost to them. Complete eradication, however, was not soon achieved, the last epidemics occurring in 1873-4 and 1880-2 after which the lingering presence of a large reservoir of the virus in neighbouring Russia still caused some minor outbreaks e.g. through refugees in the wake of the revolution of 1917 [26].

A negative factor was the spread of tuberculosis to Finland in this general epoch [1] raising the death rate of 15-44-year old men sharply. When at the same time the death rate of women of 15-24 increased only slightly and that of 25-44 actually declined, a partial explanation may be a simultaneous decline in maternal mortality.

Finally, the death rates calculated for old ages increased substantially. A similar apparent increase in old age has been observed in Sweden over the same general period, and Hofsten and Lundström [5] have concluded that it was an artefact due to gradual improvement in age information. We have found evidence of similar improvement in the Finnish data during the eighteenth century but do not rule out a real increase in the nineteenth if, for example, an improvement in living standards led to increased consumption of milk products.

Comparing our data for Finland with contemporary life tables for Sweden and England in Table 2 we find a slightly shorter life expectancy in Sweden and a slightly longer one for English men and approximately equal for English women. Age-specific comparisons in Figure 2 give Finland an advantage over Sweden and England in young adult and middle age while in older age groups mortality in Finland exceeds that of England. In these periods, mortality was regularly higher in urban than rural [28, 30], and the pronouncedly rural character of Finland with her scattered settlement pattern, low population density and abundant fresh water may have acted to offset the advantage which England and Sweden enjoyed with their greater prosperity, more advanced infrastructure, more favourable climate and absence of war from their soil.

Table 2. Life expectancy at birth in pre-transition Finland compared with Sweden and England.

Sex Sweden Finland England Finland
1751-90 1751-90 1841 1841-50
Males 33.72 35.19 40.19 38.45
Females 36.64 37.43 42.18 42.48

Sweden according to Fritzell [4], England according to English Life Table No. 1 [3].

Figure 2. Ratio of mortality in Finland to contemporary mortality in Sweden and England.

There may be populations today with as low and possibly lower life expectancies than mid-eighteenth century Finland but reliable data are rarely available for the most disadvantaged societies. Comparing some data selected from United Nations sources [39] with our earliest Finnish data in Table 3 we find that life expectancy at birth in some countries is now a great deal higher whereas in adult age it remains on the level of the pestilential Europe of two centuries ago. This is the case in countries which display the usual female advantage in survival, as well as in Nepal and India where for cultural reasons the reverse is the case.


Table 3. Life expectancy at birth and at ages 15 and 50.

Country and period










Finland 1751-60







Malawi 1977







Rwanda 1978







India 1961-70







Nepal 1981







Source for Malawi, Rwanda, India and Nepal: [39]


For the measurement of the intensity of a mortality crisis, Hollingsworth [6] and Dupaquier [2] have presented indices which we, however, did not find suitable for our particular historical series in which peaks were very frequent and sometimes hardly distinguishable from each other. Instead, to identify crisis years and to measure their intensity, we compared in an earlier publication [38] the crude death rate of each year to "basic mortality" of the epoch which we defined as the mean of the six lowest rates in each sliding 9-year period. Between 1751 and 1880 we found 18 years in which the ratio of actual to basic mortality was 1.3 or higher. The ratio exceeded 2 in the war years 1808-9 with 2.61 and 2.47 respectively and during the last famine year 1868 with 3.59.

We may have a better appreciation of the usual magnitude of short term fluctuations if we leave out the truly exceptional events: the famine of 1866-9 and the wars of 1808-99, 1918 and 1939-44. In the intervening periods the mean annual deviations (up or down) of the crude death rate from basic mortality were the following:

Period Percent
1755-1807 13.4
1810-1865 10.4
1869-1917 6.6
1919-1938 5.0
1945-1990 2.1
1951-1990 (1.3)

The regime of sharp peaks and troughs did not come to a sudden end with the onset of the great transition after 1870 but had already been weakened in the nineteenth century, a major reason being smallpox vaccination.

Mortality Transition Develpment since 1880

logo70.gif (2450 bytes)

Finnish Life Tables since 1751
Väinö Kannisto, Oiva Turpeinen, and Mauri Nieminen
© 1999 - 2000 Max-Planck-Gesellschaft ISSN 1435-9871