Watersheds in Infant Mortality: Massachusetts, 1880 to 1915

Marcella Alsan, Stanford University
Claudia Goldin, Harvard University

We explore the first period of decline in infant mortality in the U.S. and provide estimates of the independent and combined effects of clean water and effective sewerage systems on infant mortality. Our case is Massachusetts, 1880-1915, when state authorities developed a sewerage and water district for municipalities in the Boston Greater Metropolitan area. We find that the two interventions were complementary and together accounted for approximately 35 percent of the total decline in log infant mortality among treated municipalities during the 35 years considered. Considerable research has documented the importance of clean water interventions for improvement in population health, but there is less evidence on the importance of sewerage systems. Our findings are directly relevant to urbanization in the developing world and suggest that a dual-pronged approach of safe water and sewerage is important to improving infant and early child survival.

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Presented in Session 86: Health and Mortality in Historical Perspective