People Dying Because of Heat Waves: Did It Happen in Before A/C?

I do a lot of reading about history, but it suddenly occured to me today that I don’t remember ever reading about a killer heat wave that happened centuries ago. For the sake of my question, let’s say from 1500 onward, when many countries were documenting their environments. (Royal court records, letters, some diaries, first hand accounts of plagues, etc.).

If heatwaves didn’t kill people back then the way they do today, why? There were crowded urban centers at that time, too. Water was more scarce. There wasn’t as much medical attention paid to heat exhaustion.Instead of people dropping like flies in the fields, the main killer during hot times seems to be the plague. Ever sensitive to large outbreaks of illness which might signal another plauge, wouldn’t they have noted that during this heatwave lots of people died?

Has climate change has made intense heat more common? Has the climate really changed that much? I know that Europe went through a “little ice age” in the 1500s-1600s, but what about China or Japan?

Were the people who lived hundreds of years ago were somehow “used to it?” Has air conditioning spoiled us? I’ve noticed that people who live in uncomfortable climates (like the rainforest) seem to adapt to them to the point where they don’t seem effected by what would knock the rest of us down.

So, anybody got the Dope?

This paper on heat stroke linked
has this passage in the abstract:

Here’s one site with some historical numbers:

And info on a 1936 heat wave that killed 364 in Detroit:

And a NOAA article on the heat wave of 1936 along with general info about the effect of heat on humans:

I wonder why they don’t have numbers for before 1930.

Most of the people who die in these heat waves seem to be the elderly - people who, hundreds of years ago, probably would have already been dead of something else.

The winter cold, in particular.


It’s significant that one of the very first (if not the very first) uses of air conditioning technology wasn’t personal comfort , but in a hospital in Appalachicola, Florida:

I believe that things like this fell into the category of “dying of natural causes” at one time.

Today a person dying from a heat wave is a scandal and an indictment of the community.

At one time it was just a normal part of life and death, the way disease outbreaks were.

That’s progress.

That was my thought, too. People who these days die of extreme heat are already compromised in some way (from a health standpoint). A hundred years ago or more, they wouldn’t have lived through whatever compromised them to begin with.

Either that or the condition that compromised their health, and made them susceptible to the heat, would be the cause of death.

Right. When a heat wave starts killing off old people, it’s not as though we see them slumped over on the sidewalk every few feet. We’re talking a relatively small number of deaths; it’s likely not the sort of thing people would even have noticed without public health boards tallying up numbers. If Grampa died in the hottest part of the summer, no one outside his family would know.

You don’t need to go back centuries. Widespread use of air conditioning is very recent. E.g, the Empire State Building (finished 1931) interior design was based on any room being within one room width of an exterior window. Why? No air-conditioning. In fact air conditioning wasn’t installed in the Empire State Building until 1950.

Considering this your question is very valid. If people are dropping like flies in heat waves today due partially to lack of a/c, what did they do in 1950? That’s not very long ago. Cities, urban crowding, average health of the US population, etc. were about the same then as today. In fact healthcare technology, communication, etc is much better today.

I suspect it happened then, too. But today, there are so many news outlets, all looking for “stories”, that almost everything counts. Plus, we have so many more outlets from which to get our information. In 1950, if a home had a TV, it got four or five channels. Probably two of those channels had a half-hour news program daily. Most people probably had access to one major newspaper. Compare that to today, when most Americans have whole networks devoted to nothing but news! Plus, regular newspapers, online newspapers, etc. I don’t think death of heatstroke is any more common, we’re just more likely to hear about it.

General newspaper stories from many cities in the period 1880-1925 carried articles about how many died in specific states/cities from heat waves. It was always there.

What really boggles my mind is that there are still unconditioned residences in places like Texas and Arizona. It gets over 100 degrees in the summer here in eastern Washington, and it’s almost unheard of for a residence to not have at least a swamp cooler.

Then again, I wonder how many of these people who die did have AC and just wouldn’t turn it on. I can remember my great aunt (who was raised during the Great Depression) going around her house shivering in the winter, complaining about how cold she was, but she wouldn’t turn up the heat because that costs money.

Some people don’t die at home - my mom says the lady who owns some shop she was in has a son who worked with a friend for a full shift as waiters and then (teenagers) decided to walk home, 8 miles. The friend keeled over and is in a coma and may very well not survive. I’m sure people often overdo it one way or another and don’t realize they’re in trouble until it’s too late, particularly since confusion can be a symptom.

Absolutely. One thing you have to realize is the description put on the death certificate of what caused the death is a mixture of science and art. And cultural memes of the time about what causes death.

Example. Say I am looking at a dead person of 65 who died in an un-air-conditioned apartment on a day when the heat index was 105. Said dead person is a little overweight, a little purple in the face, has slightly doughy ankles. I am not going to do an autopsy because no crime has been committed, and I’m not about to expend State resources figuring which natural disease more than another is most responsible for this person’s death. What do I put? Heart disease.

I think about this every time I read statistics like “38% of deaths are caused by heart disease.” No. 38% of deaths have been attributed to “heart disease” on the death certificate. In the absence of an autopsy, you don’t actually know whether the person died of heart disease. National autopsy rates are less than one half of one percent.

I could easily ascribe that person’s death to heat complicated by underlying heart disease. I could ascribe it to amitriptyline and heat and underlying diabetes (Elavil, or amitriptyline, interferes with the sympathetic nervous system’s response to heat). To do that, I would have to test blood for Elavil, which means I would need both a reason to suspect the person was using Elavil, and a readily accessible test for it. Fifty years ago, I might have said “pneumonia”, “frailty”, “weakness”, or “congestive heart failure”. Two hundred years ago, I might have said “It was her time, God took her.”

The absence of diagnosis of death due to heat two hundred years ago might not be due to the absence of death due to heat, but to the cultural meme that meant doctors and other responsible persons paid attention to other things that they wrote on the death certificates.

About ten years ago New York City had a heat wave. Old folks started dying one by one in their tiny un-airconditioned apartments. Many of them decomposed before being found (decomposition doesn’t take long at all in the heat). The austere policies of the NY Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in those days dictated that anyone suspected of dying of the heat, since it is an accidental death, receive an autopsy.

So many bodies came in that the coolers overflowed. (If you remember Men in Black #1, the morgue scenes were actually filmed in the NY Manhattan OCME - that scene where the alien guy’s body is in the cooler, and Will Smith is pretending to be a doctor to the beautiful lady doc, that’s an actual drawer from the real cooler - God, I hope they scrubbed it out for days first. Anyhow, hundreds of drawers.)

They hired refrigerated trucks and stored the bodies at the curbside as the large staff of the OCME labored to plow through all the autopsies. The Chief Medical Examiner petitioned the Mayor to declare what he called a “slow moving emergency”. Every now and then the generator or the wiring would go out on one of the refrigerated trucks, which would turn dark and start to warm up. Some intrepid technician from a heating and cooling company would have to be called in to climb into the stinking truck in the dark between the stacked layers of decomposing bodies to fix the problem.

Did you hear about this wave of heat deaths? It happened within recent memory.

I don’t think failed adaptation of the human to NYC levels of heat is the main problem. I think heat is deleterious to the human body, and elderly ones bear it even less successfully than do young ones.