The new television show The Knick, which debuts on Friday, takes viewers way back in time to New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900, a time when electricity was a new invention and people were more likely to die from the flu than cancer. At the center of the show, the hospital’s doctors handle pressing medical issues in a time severely lacking modern technology—and while we’re not sure what nasty afflictions the show’s characters will face, we took a look back at the scariest public health issues in 1900:
Pneumonia or Flu
Today, people get their flu shots so they don’t have to suffer through a week at home of aches, chills and nausea. In 1900, flu pandemics had the potential to take the lives of millions. The 1918 flu pandemic, for example, killed 50 million people around the world. But even without a pandemic, the flu and related ailments were the number one cause of death in the United States. More than 200 people for every 100,000 in the United States died of the disease. Suggested precautions were rudimentary, and largely ineffective. Despite their popularity, products like Vicks VapoRub did little to fight the bugs.
Getting tuberculosis in 1900 was a death sentence—and a drawn-out one at that. Suffers of the infectious disease that typically attacks the lungs had an average of three years to live. But those years would be filled with coughing and chest pains. Killing 194 people per 100,000, it was the second leading cause of death in the United States in 1900.
Giving birth in 1900 was a scary thing. According to some historical accounts, most well-trained doctors, all of whom were men, didn’t want to practice obstetrics, leaving the worst doctors to deal with child birth. Most women delivered their babies at home with midwives or general practitioners who didn’t know the ins and outs of child birth. Blood hemorrhage and severe bacterial infections led to most of the deaths—some 800 for every 100,000 live births.
If you made it through child birth in 1900, there was still a good chance your child wouldn’t make it through his or her first year. More than 150 out of every 1,000 children under the age of 1 died each year in the United States. In some cities, up to 30 percent of infants didn’t make it through their first year. The high mortality rate was closely connected with broader public health issues. Young kids were especially vulnerable to unsafe drinking water, contaminated food and poor nutrition.
Cars were still a rarity at the turn of the century, but where they did exist, they were something to avoid. Drivers lacked training, and cars shared the road with horses, trolleys, and pedestrians in a way almost unimaginable today. In 1900, 36 people died in car crashes, which doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider there were only a few thousand cars on the road across the country, it adds up.