Who died from cancer? A history of victims of malignant tumors in Belgium, 1850-1950

Start - End 
2024 - 2024 (ongoing)
Department of History
Research Focus 



Cancer is a major killer. In Belgium, cancer is currently responsible for a third of all deaths and the second most important cause of death. Despite its prominent position in current medical research and everyday life, the history of victims of cancer is basically unwritten. Compared to other great plagues (such as smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis and the Black Death) cancer has received little historical attention. Cancer’s scarcity in historical scholarship is not surprising because it is largely perceived as a late twentieth century disease. Despite the fact that cancer has been known since ancient times, there is a widely held belief that it is ‘manmade’ disease. It is understood as an unintended consequence of modern life and a post-industrial phenomenon. Besides genetics, medical research suggests that cancer usually develops due to individual lifestyle and environmental factors, both of which are shaped by socio-economic causes. In recent years, scholars have devoted much attention to socio-economic inequalities in health. Most studies on contemporary populations show robust evidence of a negative relation between mortality and socio-economic position: persons from disadvantaged groups generally experience higher mortality than advantaged groups. However for cancer, the picture is less homogenous: current cancer mortality displays no consistent relationship with socio-economic position. International studies observe a positive, a negative or no association between cancer mortality and socio-economic position, depending on the cancer site. The reasons for these contradictions remain unclear.

The main goal of the project is to unravel the socio-economic patterning of cancer in nineteenth and twentieth century Belgium in order to gain better insight into the pathways connecting cancer mortality and socio-economic inequalities. Rather than studying contemporary populations, this project adopts a historical perspective by investigating cancer at a time when the disease was ‘emerging’ and untreatable. Using the exceptionally rich Belgian cause of death series and censuses (population, industrial, agricultural and cadastral), the project will investigate the geographic patterns and trends of cancer mortality in nineteenth and early twentieth century Belgium and examine their relation with regional and local ecological and socio-economic circumstances (did it matter where you lived?). The project will furthermore dig thoroughly into socio-economic differences at the individual level by focusing on the profile of cancer victims (age, sex, profession, origin etc.) compared to other diseases (who died from cancer?). Finally, in order to understand medical awareness of cancer and the processes by which the disease was listed in the nineteenth and twentieth century cause of death registers, government reports and journals from local and national medical societies will be used (what did medical professionals and the population know about cancer?).