Author Archives: John Carmody

About John Carmody

John Carmody is a Sydney-based writer on medical and cultural history.

May day was in June

The father of the Mule is currently in  the UK and penned the following piece as he reflected on the outcome of the election. With the speed of the election cycle, the election results may already seem a distant memory, but any tardiness in publishing this post is entirely due to a slow editor (me) rather than late filing!

The only word to describe Theresa May’s unnecessary recent decision to call an early election in Britain is “hubris” and that hubris has now led to irremediable humiliation. “Strong and stable” could have described her political position before the election, but as a campaign slogan, delivered with numbingly motoric repetition, it became risible as “Jobson Growth” had been in Australia last year.

Beyond May’s trouncing, the election has also invalidated many British political verities: “Young people don’t turn out to vote” is, probably, the most significant of them and this is a healthy reminder that the future is theirs not (as with the referendum in 2016) that of the frightened older generation. Politics is more than the “reality” of hard-headed professionals; it is about hopes and dreams. Young people rightly have those; we oldsters have largely lost them. Ironically Jeremy Corbyn revealed a striking ability to combine the use of modern social media with old-fashioned mass rallies to persuade the young, especially women, to listen and to support them in their yearning for a better future. As a result, the overall voting turn-out (69%) was the highest since 1997 and exit-polls indicated that the increase was 12% amongst the under-35s. A post-election poll of over 50,000 people showed that the age cross-over in voting preferences occurs at 47, with increasing Labour support below that, reaching over 60% in those younger than 30.

Another challenge to conventional wisdom is that it is now accepted that threats to “law-and order” such as the recent terror attacks, no longer seem to favour right-wing parties. There may be a resonance in this for Australia.

For those of us who love data, consider the vote in Corbyn’s own constituency of Islington North: he won in 2015 with a 60.24% of the vote and a majority of 21,194; this year his vote was 72.98% and the majority 33,215. By contrast, consider Canterbury, amidst a sea of Conservative blue in the south-east, where a Tory ascendancy of more than 150 years has been turned from a 9,798 win in 2015 to a Labour majority of 187 (in a swing of 9.33%). Significantly, it is a university city.

The house next to where I am staying in London, displayed a “Vote Labour” poster, and vote Labour the constituency did, with a 30,509 majority for the member Keir Starmer, the former DPP and human rights lawyer. In fact, London (with 49 Labour seats, a gain of 4, to the Conservatives’ 21, a loss of 5), remains an astonishing Labour stronghold.

The overall national vote for Labour was 39.98%, very close to the 41% of the 2001 “landslide” for Tony Blair. This secured them 261 seats (a gain of 31 seats) compared to 318 to the Conservatives (with 42.45% of the vote and a loss of 12 seats).

But the traumas were for more than for the Conservatives alone. North of the River Tweed the Scottish National party has been reduced to 35 seats (a fall from 50% support in 2015 to 35% this time, at a cost of 19 seats). Another independence referendum there now looks pretty unlikely. The other loser – unsurprising, perhaps, because the 2016 “Brexit” rather pricked its balloon, leaving it “a rebel without a cause” – was UKIP (the “UK Independence Party”) which fell, overall, from about 13% to less than 2% of the vote, leading to the immediate resignation of Paul Nuttall, its third leader in a year after Nigel Farrage’s retirement; Nuttall finished an ignominious third (with only 3,300 votes) in the constituency which he contested.

So where does this leave the hapless Theresa May? And, more important, where does it leave Britain – without a plausible government and the Brexit negotiations looming within days? She has been looking weak and opportunistic in seeking a “deal” of sorts with the members of the so-called Democratic Unionist Party from Ulster (one of whom is the son of the Rev Ian Paisley), “our friends” as some shameless Tories have been calling them. She will find them uncomfortable allies, with special interests as well as regional and sectarian concerns. When a former Conservative PM strongly criticises this deal, as John Major did on radio a few days after the election, the political right looks as fractured as Britain, itself.

Yet, oblivious to all of that, May returned from an interview with the Queen on Friday 9 June and made a speech saying, “The government I lead will put fairness and opportunity at the heart of everything we do”, as if the Corbyn ethos and campaign hadn’t existed, and all of that would happen “over the next five years”. She appears to be the only person in the country who thinks that she can last even 5 months, let alone five years. Ever since the shock of election night, numerous members of her party have been trenchantly critical of her campaign and, no less importantly, of her performance as PM. Her two vilified senior advisers promptly resigned; it was as if, somehow, they were to blame because she listened to them so exclusively and ignored everyone else. Somehow the reality was forgotten that consequences flow from accepting advice: a politician (like everyone else) has the freedom to reject it. For example, I saw one former minister say that “Mrs May must now obviously consider her position after a dreadful campaign.” And a former Cabinet Secretary (Lord Turnbull) bluntly said that May “isn’t up to it……she doesn’t have the skill-set to be Prime Minister….and should resign”. May has prodigally thrown away her limited political capital, most likely having over-estimated it from the beginning.

Of course, the British political and historical perspective is limited. They seem to have a fierce aversion to coalition governments and hung parliaments (though te PM seems the one being hung this time) and fail to understand that such arrangements are the norm in many other successful (even “strong and stable”) societies. That word “hubris” comes to mind again. Meanwhile, as the political classes fret intensely, life for everyone else goes on: the fickle weather alternates between sunshine and bleakness, it’s still possible to do research in libraries and archives; there are still fine exhibitions to be visited. And there will be a record number of women in the Commons – more than 200. So there’s always a bright side in politics – we just need to look properly.

John Carmody

More on Brexit

After observing the Brexit poll at close quarters, guest Mule contributor John Carmody travelled on to Europe and continued to reflect on the significance of the vote. In this follow-up post he reflects on the historical journey of the European Union and his reasons for thinking that the Leave vote was a terrible mistake on the part of British voters.

I have also continued to reflect on the vote and have arrived at a similar conclusion for different reasons. I do have some sympathy for some of the political sovereignty arguments for Leave (although not those based on Farage and UKIP xenophobia), but I still think that Remain is the better option. The best analogy I have come up with is someone regretting the decision to get a large tattoo. While it may have been better never to have had the tattoo, removal can be painful and leave an ugly scar. In the same way, Britain does not have the option to wind back the clock and eradicate the last 40 years of history: it did join the Union and an exit will lead to a very different Britain. There is no way to transition to a counterfactual Britain that never joined back in 1973 and had developed its own trade agreements, human rights legislation, environmental legislation, funded all of its own infrastructure, scientific research, etc, etc. Exit will be painful and, even if joining in the first place was a mistake as some would argue, leaving will be worse.

But back to the guest post…and I would be interested in reactions to this post, so please post your thoughts in the comments.

As with beauty, the rights and wrongs of the British “Brexit” vote will lie in the eye (or the prejudices) of the beholder.  Certainly, innumerable words are still being deployed about it, though many of them (notably, but certainly not exclusively, in Britain) are rather self-interested or poorly informed.  I believe that the Anglophone world, in general (including in Australia), has a poor understanding of the structure and operations of the European Union and a fortiori of its genesis in the fraught history of Europe, since the Reformation.

It is in part a historical institution and in part a philosophical one. It has grown from the fraught history of European religious, territorial and mercantile wars as well as the growing sense, notably in the twentieth century, if the “idea” of Europe. As an island (even insular) nation which has not been successfully invaded since 1066, Britain has played only a sporadic often simply self-interested part in those developments. And Australia, influenced so powerfully by Britain (as, indeed, it still is) shares much of that ignorance of European history and thought.

Experience commonly determines understanding.  As time passes and people forget or, without that lived experience of adversity, become complacent (especially, in this specific case, about Europe’s peace since 1945): it is the serious responsibility of politicians, as well as teachers and journalists, to impart this knowledge.  Even writers in the International New York Times, who ought to understand a federation, use such demeaning words as “bloc” or “imperfect union”—as if the USA is any different in its fallibility.  Of course, the EU is “imperfect”: it is (like every human institution) “a work in progress”; but commentators need to acknowledge that it has made astonishing progress.  Of course, for a diversity of reason (not the least of which is language) it is not as mature a federation as those of the US and Australia, but in fields as diverse as health and the environment, education and agriculture, for example, it has transformed Europe.  There is, for all its limitations, a far greater sense of a European identity than when I first went there 40 years ago.

Regrettably, for years, journalists and politicians—in particular those in Britain (and hence in Australia, because our journalists are essentially compacts)—have failed in their responsibility to inform, rather than manipulate, their constituencies.  In fact, it has often seemed that they were determined, for their own partisan interests, to misinform and profit from prejudice — especially in that recent “Brexit” campaign.   Australians are all too familiar with some of this behaviour: we have seen many comparable instances when our politicians have engaged in what is called the “blame game” between the states and Canberra.  Thus, British politicians have blamed “Brussels” for decisions which were democratically made in the European Parliament, even when they were elected members of it and they actually voted for the contended measures.

All too frequently the talk is about some sort of opaque and unaccountable bureaucracy, whereas the truth is (as I have been advised by well-informed lawyers) that the administration exercised by the European Commission (as that civil service is called) is pretty lean, and smaller than pertains even in some of the larger cities in Europe.  Furthermore, is it overseen by two levels of representative oversight. Contrary to what many in Britain believe, or are told to believe, this Commission does not control Europe, any more than the public service in Whitehall “controls” the United Kingdom or the Canberra bureaucracy “controls” Australia.  That authority is exercised, jointly, by the Councils of Ministers and the European Parliament. Those several Councils are composed of the relevant Ministers from the legislatures of the constituent countries of the EU, all of whom are accountable to their home Parliaments and electorates.  The European Parliament is made up of directly elected members and is, therefore, no less democratic a body that the House of Commons (and it is decidedly more democratic and representative than the House of Lords).  Of course, as happened with Federation in Australia, when the uniting colonies ceded some powers to the Commonwealth but retained others, this sharing of power is undertaken for a greater good, but it has costs: it is certainly not a “loss of control” as Boris Johnson and his henchmen duplicitously asserted and (either through lack of ability or conviction) David Cameron failed to properly contradict.

That was not the only lie of the recent British referendum.  Another was the claim that a vote for “Brexit” would return to the National Health Service an amount of £350 million each week (the asserted, but seriously inflated, figure for the current British payment to the EU budget).  Almost as soon as the referendum results were declared, the “Leave” proponents were repudiating that promise.  A former Conservative Leader, Iain Duncan Smith, brazenly insisted that “I didn’t say that”, even when he was reminded that the posters and leaflets which his group issued had promised exactly that.  His revised promise became, instead, that the NHS would receive “the lion’s share” of whatever was left over after the essential compensation was paid to British farmers for the loss of their substantial subsidies from the EU.

Other falsehoods, though, continued to be promulgated after the referendum.  In a column in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson wrote that “there will continue to be free trade, and access to a single market.”  In other words, the insular British could continue to have their current cake and eat it too (Johnson once said that this was his “policy”).  It was a reiteration of the campaign propaganda—that it was possible, in effect, to remain a member while avoiding all of those inconvenient costs of membership, political and financial.  That is utter nonsense.  Either Britain is a member or it is not.  There is no possibility of being “a little bit pregnant”.  The situation of Norway was often mentioned.

But, I am advised that, as a non-member wishing to enjoy free-trade, Norway must pay about 90% of what its contributions would be if were actually a member.  Britain would have to pay something comparable if it wanted access to the European market and, given the stern attitudes which, understandably, are currently attributed to such leaders as Dr Merkel and M. Hollande, more attractive rates are highly unlikely.  The bitter result for Britain from Johnson’s interpretation of “free access” would be a comparable cost but with absolutely influence on EU laws and policies.

Some Independence Day for Nigel Farage and his “UKIP”!  Some “regaining control” for the Colonel Blimps and their powdered ladies of “Middle England”! And even worse prospects for the struggling under classes, especially in the north.  Wrongly, they feel neglected by Brussels (the reverse is actually the truth), but, for decades, Westminster has shown little regard for then.

Even if, to other than close observers, the outcome of the poll were unexpected (it had seemed highly likely to me), the heterogeneity of the results – age by age, region by region, class by class—were a harsh reminder of what a fractured county Britain currently is.  The “United” part of the name UK, is meaningless.  Scotland (68%), Northern Ireland (56%) and London (60%), for example, voted strongly to stay in the EU; much of the rest of England voted to leave (52-58%).

Various analyses have shown that education played an important role.  In regions where fewer than 22% of the population have a degree, 62% voted “Out”, but that vote was only 42% where more than 32% of residents have a degree.  The age disparities were even more stark.  Commercial polling, after the voting closed, showed that 73% of 18-24 year-olds support EU membership but only 40% of those over 65.  Those with a future have been trumped by those who may not live to see the promised “independent future”.  As a Cambridge colleague recently said to me, “We feel in free-fall”.  Many Europeans to whom I have spoken are just as perplexed.  Perhaps the real truth was recognised by an astute and experienced Italian journalist, Beppe Severgnini, who wrote, “One should understand that it wasn’t fear, or anger, that brought so many English to vote for Brexit on June 23.  It was nostalgia…….nostalgia for a self-sufficient, cosy Little England that is long gone.  But they don’t seem to realise that nothing, not even voting to leave the European Union, can bring it back.”

Of course, there were as many individual reasons as there were voters: but in some places there seemed an almost wilful determination – notwithstanding that the rage was probably directed at the wrong target – to inflict self-harm.  In some places which depend upon EU finances for their very lives (and certainly their jobs), it ironically became art transformed into life with the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” cry in The Life of Brian turned into “What has Europe ever done for us?”  When reality eventually strikes, it will certainly be harsh and those misled communities will feel the greatest pain and social upheaval.  Certainly, given the deep and serious rifts in her party—let alone British society at large—the task which faces the new Prime Minister designate, Theresa May is immense.

The voting figures indicate that there are clear political divisions as well.  On the day after the vote, the formidable Nicola Sturgeon was unequivocal.  As the First Minister in the Scottish Government, she pointed out how strong the “Remain” vote had been north of the Tweed.  A new referendum on independence for Scotland, she declared, is certainly “on the table”.  Indeed, without Scotland, Britain would shrink to “Little England”, with the serious risk of a crippling reduction in its importance as a financial centre, let alone its potential scientific losses.  Furthermore, whether the enduring sectarianism of Northern Island would prove an implacable impediment to some sort of union with the Irish Republic in the south has become a hot topic because, otherwise, their border would also become the British border with the EU and securing it would be an enormous challenge for both sides in every conceivable respect.

Much has been made of the concern that “Brexit” might encourage more breakaway movements.  While the focus has been on Madam Le Pen and her National Front in France, or the extreme Rightist party of Geert Wilders in Holland, concern will also be felt about the intentions of such nationalist groups as the Basques and the Catalans.  It is ironic that, as the world is supposed to becoming more integrated, notably as electronic communications and transport become ever faster and less expensive, smaller communities and political groups seem so alluring.  Currently, this is simply speculation, but to many people (not just politicians) it is troubling just the same.

Even so, the final card may not have been played in Britain.  The political and legal power of such a referendum as was recently held there are far from clear in that nation’s diffuse constitution.  A corollary of the contemporary rhetoric is that the people want the British Parliament to be supreme.  The logical consequence of that aspiration would be that the parliament must make the ultimate decision about whether to act on that slender 52%:48% margin (keeping in mind the principle that a greater majority—say of 66% or even 75%—ought to have been mandated before any radical action was triggered).  To deny the people their “choice” might seem politically foolhardy (or, even responsibly statesmanlike); but that it why so many nations have parliaments, rather than frequent national plebiscites.

Yet, legally speaking, the position it far more complicated.  It is certainly not a matter of the new British Prime Minister sending a letter to Brussels to trigger exit negotiations.  That action, under the terms of membership agreements, requires action by the appropriate law-making bodies in the member country in question: in Britain that it the parliament—it certainly is not the cabinet, let alone the individual PM.  So, this can hardly be done – in the legal way which Brussels would require, before Parliament returns from its scheduled summer recess, if only because the required legislation (especially if it is to specify the conditions of the negotiations with the EU in the requisite detail) will be difficult and time-consuming to write and debate.

For all that many are said to be calling for a speedy resolution, it simply cannot occur in a hurry.  Lady Macbeth’s wish that the deed should be done quickly might be appealing, but it is not practicable.  Patience is less often understood as the political virtue that is should be.  Like beauty and its appreciation, it is uneven in its distribution.  Sagacity, not seduction, is what is now required on all sides.


Sometime Stubborn Mule contributor, John Carmody, finds himself in the UK at the time of the Brexit vote and has filed the following report. Meanwhile, back here in Australia, the Mule is watching anxiously for signs that we are on the verge of the end of Western civilisation “in it’s entirety”.

On the night before the “Brexit” poll, London had heavy rain with much thunder and lightning: Donner and Blitzen if we want to be Europeans. Later that day London had further downpours with associated disorder with transport and traffic all of which created real difficulties in what was regarded as a “Remain” stronghold. It was very striking to me – having been in London for the past few days, how prominent the “Remain” supporters were on the streets (as was also the case when I visited Cambridge”: the “Leave” supporters were silent and not to be seen there.

Many schools were closed for the day because they were commandeered as places for voting (oddly, the British still vote on Thursdays because, as I’ve been told, that was “Market Day” hundreds of years ago, therefore people “came to town: so much for progress and change here). If the day seemed “business as usual”, I saw some hint of the latent tensions late in the afternoon when I strolled into a polling place in Charing Cross Road. It looked like a second-hand bookshop, and apart from a few officials I was the only person. A prim woman told me that if I “did not have the right piece of paper”, I was not permitted to enter. I protested that I simply wanted to see how the British vote: she said that I might be a terrorist and simply had to leave (so I went to the opera down the road and felt part of a greater reality).

The polling closed at 10.00 pm and, to the television watcher (the coverage was less lively than we’re accustomed to in Australia) the results seemed to be declared rather slowly. But it was different from an election: it was the actual numbers that were crucial and, astonishingly early, the trend became clear. By the end, before 5.00am, it was 52% to leave, with the greatest turnout (72% in a country without compulsory voting) in more than 20 years: the political and financial leadership had been rebuffed and, before 8.30am, standing outside Number 10 in Downing Street, David Cameron – having suffered the fate which, maladroitly, he had brought on himself – announced his resignation. That was inevitable: but, curiously, he will remain as “caretaker” until the party conference in the autumn. The result will be a Tory party that is focussed, not on national problems or the negotiations with the European Union, but with their leadership battles. Not that it is more cheerful for Labour. That party also needs a new leader. Jeremy Corbyn was, plainly, conflicted during this campaign – a “Eurosceptic” he found campaigning with conviction for “Remain” was beyond him and in an interview after the result was clear, he was equivocal, pallid and deemed utterly out of his depth. As with Australia, a big section of the electorate seem to be disillusioned (or worse) with the two political power-blocs.

And if the forthcoming politics seem turbid, it is just as perplexing and concerning for the economy. The immediate result was a fall in the value of the pound and of the stock market fell by 8-10% and we were told, the banking stocks fell by 20-30%, the pound by a margin which has, allegedly not seen since 1985. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, made an impressive and emollient speech (which was plainly directed to the markets) but words have a limited utility. The metaphorical economic storm clouds are serious for Britain.
Even the very use of that word seems problematic at present. The country is seriously divided. The out votes were 53% in England, 53% in Wales, 44% in Ulster and 38% in Scotland. No less significant is the fact that whereas certain results were expected (notably with London and the major cities strongly for “Remain”), in traditional Labour areas, notably in the north, there were strong “Leave” votes. Cameron gave the electorate the opportunity to repudiate the government, and they took it; but it was also an expression of “no confidence” in the Opposition.

So there is already serious talk about another independence referendum in Scotland (and even in Northern Ireland); Nicola Sturgeon will clearly feel emboldened. And there is, understandably concern in the European capitals: the talk about Britain not being able to “cherry-pick” the conditions of its exit. The politicians in Brussels and elsewhere do not want to encourage the waverers in the EU.

Meanwhile, though there is much brave talk in Britain – about “reclaiming independence”, or “protecting democracy” or “taking back control” – this is a step into an uncertain future. There’s a wide and exciting world out there, but a timid majority of Britons seem unwilling – or afraid – to want to live in it. It’s their choice, their risk, their lost opportunity. But as a great British writer and Divine once wrote, “No man is an island”.

Getting Australia Post out of the red

John Carmody returns to the Mule in his promised second guest post and takes a close look at Australia Post’s profitability with some (ahem) back-of-the-envelope calculations.

There are many forms of communication which underpin the function and productivity of a modern society like Australia. Despite the Cassandra-commentary from Mr Ahmed Fahour (the well-paid CEO of Australia Post), regular mail delivery certainly remains one of them.

In making his tendentious, but opaque, points, he has not been entirely frank with the community. He has, for instance, claimed that 99% of our mail is electronic. That assertion is meaningless because so much e-mail is advertising, brief inter- or intra-office memos and notices, or quick substitutes for telephone calls. When these are removed from the calculation, the importance of “hard mail” becomes more obvious

The data which the Herald has published (for instance, “Please Mr Postman: snail mail doomed to disappear“, 14 June) also show how shallow or formulaic Mr Fahour’s thinking seems to be. In 2012-13 Australia Post made an after-tax profit of $312 million and if there had been no losses on the handling of letters, that would have been $530 million. Do Australians really want a profit of that magnitude from such a vital national service?

But when one looks at that “letter-loss” a little more closely and at the figure of 3.6 billion letters delivered that year, it is clear that the loss per letter was 6.5 cents. In other words, if instead of recently increasing the cost of a standard letter to 70 cents, this had been to 75 cents, the losses would have been comprehensively dealt with.

Some comparisons might be informative. The British Royal Mail currently charges about $A1.10 for delivery of a standard (20g) letter for next-day delivery within the UK (its “aim”) and $A0.95 if you’re happy for delivery within 3 days. The Deutsche Post charges the equivalent of 86 Australian cents for delivery within Germany but about $A1.08 cents to adjacent France. Given that we currently pay only 70 cents for delivery across a far larger area, my suggested price of 75 cents seems reasonable and justified.

The government’s medical fairyland

For the first time in a while, John Carmody returns to the Stubborn Mule with the first of two guest posts. He argues that the government’s proposed medical “co-payments” do not add up.

The government continues to flounder about many details of its budget and part of the reason is a lack of stated clarity about its intentions (although the electors are drawing their own conclusions about those intentions and whether they are fair and honest). The proposed $7 “co-payment” for GP visits is an example of this lack of frankness.

On the one hand, the Government – purporting to be concerned about an excessive patronage of GPs – seems to want us to visit our doctors less frequently than the 6 visits which every man, woman and child currently makes each year (i.e. about once in two months for all of us, an internationally comparable figure, incidentally) . On the other hand, it has, so to speak, attempted to sugar-coat this unpleasant pill by promising that, while a little of that fee will go to the practitioners, most of it will go into a special fund (to be built up to $20 billion over the next 6 years) to boost medical research (and thereby do us all a great deal of good). Neither claim survives scrutiny.

The $2 proposed share to GPs will not compensate them for the extra administrative costs which they will have to carry on behalf of the Government; nor will that nugatory sum compensate for the progressive tightening of the reimbursement of doctors from “Medicare”; so the Government’s share will, to be realistic, need to be significantly less than $5. After dealing with its own extra administrative costs, therefore, the Government will probably only be able to put $3-4 per GP consultation into the proposed research fund. To build that fund up to the $20 billion proposed will require every Australian to visit the GP about 50 times each year – once each week. How this is going to reduce our alleged “overuse” of medical services has not been explained. Nor has how, in practice, it can be achieved. The Government is living in Fairyland.


John Graunt and the Birth of Medical Statistics

Dr John Carmody of the Department of Physiology at the University of Sydney, recently appeared on the ABC Radio National program, Occams Razor, speaking about John Graunt, a man many years ahead of his time. For those of you preferring the written to the auditory format, he has kindly provided his talk as a guest post for the Mule.

We become blind to what is familiar.

So dependent is modern medicine on accurate measurement that patients and doctors alike accept the fact without surprise or question, perhaps believing that it is inevitable. Yet the importance of numbers of any sort in medicine, let alone precise ones, is a concept that is little over 350 years old. In physiology, the most basic of medical sciences, this dates only from 1628 when William Harvey published his great book on the circulation, a discovery which he formulated and proved through numerical argument.

Then in London, in 1662, 350 years ago this year, John Graunt published a booklet which we can now understand was the beginning of medical statistics, of epidemiology, of medical demography. In the manner of those times he gave it the formidable title of Natural and political observations, mentioned in a following Index, and made upon the Bills of Mortality, to which he added the supplementary description, “With reference to the Government, Religion, Trade, Growth, Air, Diseases and the several changes of the said City”. His work was, therefore, far wider than establishing a new medical discipline. He was arguing for the necessary interaction of medicine, good government and sensible policy—indeed, perhaps for the discipline of quantitative economics, as well. We can realize how original Graunt’s work was when we remember that the only previous English census was the compilation of the “Domesday Book” in 1086 and that the first official census was not taken until 1801.

Graunt’s genius was to recognize—as none of his contemporaries had done—the immense importance of what we would now call a “database” which had existed in London for about 60 years. These were the so-called “Bills of Mortality” which the administrative clerks of the Church of England parishes in London had been obliged to keep scrupulously since James I became king in 1603. In fact, when James granted a charter to the Company of Parish Clerks in 1611, he legally obliged the members to be far more diligent in their recording than before his accession to the throne. These Bills recorded the christenings and the burials, parish by parish, each week. As well, the burials were accompanied by what Graunt called the “diseases and casualties” which brought about those deaths. He drew on the records of about 97 parishes within the city walls and 16 outside them and in a typical year he would have to deal with 20,000-25,000 burials and supposed causes of death.

He was very concerned with the reliability of those diagnoses which were rarely professionally reported. As he wrote, “When anyone dies, then, either by tolling, or ringing of a Bell, or by bespeaking of a Grave of the Sexton, the same is known to the Searchers corresponding with the said Sexton. The Searchers hereupon (who are ancient matrons, sworn to their office), repair to the place where the dead Corps lies, and by view of the same, and by other enquiries, they examine by what disease or casualty the corps died. Hereupon, they make their report to the Parish-Clerk.” Graunt keenly recognized the flaws in such a system and acknowledged that “I have heard some candid physicians complain of the darkness, which they themselves were in hereupon”. He also saw the possibility of corruption, the temptation, as he put it, for “the old-women searchers after the mist of a cup of ale and the bribe of a two-groat fee” to report, say, “Consumption” instead of the more shaming “infection of the spermatick parts”. In fact, he was convinced that syphilis, or the “French pox” was substantially under-reported.

Nevertheless, he decided that the incidence of such problems probably had changed little over the period which he was examining, so errors of those kinds were likely to be fairly consistent. “The ignorance of the Searchers is no impediment to the keeping of sufficient and usefull Accompts”. However, he saw other potential flaws in his data. Whereas corpses had to be disposed of for obvious reasons of health and amenity, and therefore burials provided a pretty reliable index of deaths, christenings did not reliably count births. This was because Catholics and Puritans, in particular, were reluctant to have their offspring baptized into a faith which they opposed. Furthermore, from 1649, when Charles I was executed, until 1660, when his son was restored to the Throne, the government of England was dominated by the Puritans, so many people were more confident to flout Anglican authority. Graunt was therefore obliged to make some corrections to his figures. Then, in attempting to make comparisons of births, deaths and diseases between London and the country, he had to deal with population disparities and calculate per capita rates in the absence of any census information. Another source of error, which was especially nettlesome during outbreaks of plague, was under-reporting of that disease—either because the affected households simply threw bodies into the streets, or because the “Searchers” were unwilling to inspect the bodies closely for fear of contracting the disease themselves. This meant, as Graunt recognized, that plague deaths were under-reported and the counts attributed to other causes were inflated.

Not content with simply aggregating and analyzing his data, Graunt drew up a synoptic list of 106 points in what he called his “Index”, several of which were recommendations for social and health policy.

He asserted, for example, that it would be “better to maintain all Beggars at the publick charge, though earning nothing, then to let them beg about the streets; and that employing them without discretion, may do more harm, than good”. He also found that “not one in two thousand are murthered in London”—a statistical finding which could be considered the birth of serious criminology. Even more importantly, he found that “the Rickets is a new disease, both as to name, and thing”. That diagnosis, he realized, did not appear at all in the Bills until 1634 and even then there were only 14 cases in that year; but by 1658 there were 476 cases. He seriously considered the possibility that previously it had been misdiagnosed but used his data to disprove that hypothesis. This is a remarkable reflection of the approach of William Harvey who had also used numbers to falsify arguments against his concept of the circulation of the blood.

Three years later, at the end of 1665, Graunt published, London’s dreadful visitation, or, A collection of all the Bills of Mortality for this present year, in which he applied the same analytical techniques to the demographic consequences of the “Great Plague of London”. Even today it is amazing and chilling reading: week by week, parish by parish, it documents the relentless surge of that awful disease from its first real appearance in May when 28 cases were recorded. Thereafter, the fatalities increased horrifyingly: about 340 in June; 4400 in July; 13,000 in August; 32,300 in September; 13,300 in October; 4,100 in November and 1,060 in December—a recorded total for that year of 68,600 deaths. And remember: in his earlier book, Graunt had decided that plague was, in such circumstances, seriously under-reported.

Its effects can be put into perspective by this contrast. For example, in the week from 29 August to 5 September, the Bills of Mortality reported 6,988 deaths from plague out of 8,252 burials recorded in the London parishes for that week, and in those 7 days a mere 167 christenings were recorded. Altogether, there were 9,967 christenings in that year and 97,306 burials—an almost 10-fold difference compared with the more usual disparity of less than two-fold and, according to Graunt’s estimates, those burials represented more than 22% of the population of London.

This catastrophic effect on the population of the capital could hardly be replenished by the usual birthrate because even in the first part of 1665 the christenings had been only 57% of the number of burials. In his earlier book, though, Graunt had found that there was substantial nett loss of population from the country to London. The result was that by 1675 the population of the capital was back to pre-plague levels.

In 1663, between the publication of Graunt’s extraordinary books, he had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, though this seems not to have been an entirely straightforward matter. By profession, this genius was a haberdasher, whereas, according to the first history of the Royal Society, its membership was comprised principally of “gentlemen, free, and unconfin’d”. That self-congratulatory but diplomatic history which Thomas Sprat published in 1667, only 6 years after King Charles II had joined the society, says of Graunt’s election, “it is the recommendation which the King himself was pleased to make” adding that “his Majesty gave this particular charge to His Society, that if they found any more such Tradesmen, they should be sure to admit them all, without any more ado”. Those last words suggest to me that the “Gentlemen” of the Society required a little Royal “persuasion” which, the King seemed to be hinting, he did not wish to exert a second time.

Graunt was moderately active in the affairs of the Royal Society for a few years, but in the late 1660s he fell onto hard financial times, principally, I think, on account of his conversion to Catholicism. Certainly, this required him to relinquish his military commission as a Major and doubtless had adverse effects on his professional activities. He was eventually bankrupted and died in 1674.

His fading fame was not the only thing which then disappeared. So did some important records of the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks. In his History of London, William Maitland noted, in 1739, that he had access to the Bills of Mortality only from 1664, stating that the Company “were of the opinion that the same was lent to Graunt…..but by some accident never returned”. He was neither the first nor the last scholar to forget to return borrowed materials to their owners. Nevertheless, the world of medicine remains forever in his debt. Graunt taught doctors that, for all of the importance of their focus on each individual patient, they must also shift their attention to understand what is happening to the whole population and to do so with the aid of the best possible statistics. The world is also in debt to King James, not only for the Bible which he commissioned, but for his insistence that the Parish Clerks should keep those good statistics. It is an unusual example of a beneficial combination of science and religion.

Rethinking the basis for the Australia Day holiday

In anticipation of tomorrow’s Australia Day holiday here in Australia, this guest post by John Carmody examines whether or not 26 January is really the most appropriate date for Australia Day. John Carmody is a Sydney-based writer on medical and cultural history and (in the interests of full disclosure) is closely related to the Stubborn Mule.

January 26 is a nettlesome date for the official celebration of the Australian nation and as a commemoration of our colonial foundation.  Apart from the significant nuisance that it falls so close to the end of the holiday season when our minds and emotions are trying to deal with more pressing obligations, it really asks a serious philosophical and moral question.

For indigenous Australians, conscious of their fraught history since 1788, it is no cause for celebration at all.  Understandably, they consider that it was the beginning of an invasion and see no reason to rejoice in it.  White Australians and, indeed, all immigrants can only respect that attitude; but we must do that reflectively.  The fact is that there are several distinct reasons to discard 26 January as that festive occasion.

The first point is that the date is not when the founding fleet arrived in Terra Australis: that was, rather, at Botany Bay on 19-20 January, 1788.  It was only because the officers were so disillusioned by how little resemblance that coast bore to Joseph Banks’s glowing descriptions and because of an indifferent water supply, that Governor Arthur Phillip made a reconnaissance to Port Jackson (which Captain Cook had not entered) that the venture was transferred to Sydney Cove. Even then, in the afternoon of 26 January there was little time for formalities or any grander celebration than hoisting a flag and drinking the health of the King and the success of the colony with a few glasses of Porter, followed by the flourish provided by a round of rifle fire.

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