Much Ado about Nothing? Reconsidering the Smallpox Effect. Height in the Nineteenth-Century Town of Thielt, Belgium


  • Ans Vervaeke Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Isabelle Devos Ghent University



Smallpox, Height, Nineteenth Century, Thielt


Anthropometric evidence such as height has been considered a major indicator of the social and economic well-being of past societies. To understand differences in attained height, the role of several determinants has been widely discussed. Since the 1990s, the impact of disease has shown to be a promising topic. In particular, research on the effect of smallpox on the height of the population in nineteenth-century England has triggered heated debate. Voth and Leunig argue that smallpox stunted height, but their results have been called into serious question by scholars such as Oxley, Razzell, Heintel and Baten. In this article, we introduce new sources and evidence for Thielt, a small rural town in Belgium. By linking military registers with smallpox listings, our analysis allows for a nuanced study of the height of conscripts. In early nineteenth-century Thielt, height differences between smallpox survivors and those who did not fall prey to the disease appear to be largely the result of household circumstances. By taking into account individual and familial attributes, we show the importance of the father's death and father's occupation for the son's height. However, smallpox did not have a statistically significant effect on height.


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Author Biographies

Ans Vervaeke, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Ans Vervaeke obtained a Master in History (2012) and Master in General Economics (2014) at Ghent University. In her MA dissertation in History, she investigated the influence of smallpox on female fertility and male height in the rural city of Thielt in the nineteenth century. Since March 2014 she works as a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Historical Research into Urban Transformation processes (HOST) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, where she prepares a PhD on explaining the great litigation decline in early modern Flanders.

Isabelle Devos, Ghent University

Isabelle Devos is a historian (Ghent University) and demographer (Université Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve). She is Associate Professor at the History Department of Ghent University. Over the years her research has revolved around social and economic issues of the early modern period and the long nineteenth century in a comparative perspective, with a particular focus on demography, health and living standards. 




How to Cite

Vervaeke, A., & Devos, I. (2018). Much Ado about Nothing? Reconsidering the Smallpox Effect. Height in the Nineteenth-Century Town of Thielt, Belgium. TSEG - The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 14(4), 56–83.