19th-Century Maps Tracking Major Diseases Across the United States

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
April 24 2014 12:30 PM

19th-Century Maps Tracking Major Diseases Across the United States

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

In a group of five maps published in 1874, Dr. Sidney H. Carney, then Associate Medical Director for the New York Life Insurance Company, used data from the company’s files to represent incidences of disease in the eastern United States. The charts show prevalence of malaria, pneumonia, rheumatism, typhoid fever, and phthisis (an archaic term for tuberculosis).

In a blog post on the making of the maps, medical geographer Brian Altonen speculates that Carney may have decided to chart five of the diseases that were then commonly understood as being tied to the physical environment (and, therefore, to geography). The true causes of these afflictions—some of which, like malaria, could indeed be tied to place—wouldn’t be understood for years to come.


In his position with the New York Life Insurance Company, Carney was witness to a huge expansion in the life insurance industry in the post-Civil War period. With the opening of many new firms in the 1870s, competition was fierce.

In a note near the top of the map, directed to “Railroads, Express, Telegraph, and other Companies,” Carney gives some indication as to the maps’ intended audiences. These companies could request the reproduction of “any portions of this sheet as independent and complete Maps, with new titles, borders, etc.”

The maps represented an innovative attempt to set New York Life apart as a company that understood the needs of its corporate customers. Railroads considering expansion might have found it helpful to have information on disease prevalence readily available; in turn, New York Life could hope to strengthen its relationship with those companies.

Click on the images to reach zoomable versions, or visit the maps' page on the Library of Congress website.


Library of Congress


Library of Congress


Library of Congress

Phthisis (TB).

Library of Congress

Typhoid fever.

Library of Congress



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?