Childhood death in the 19th centurye century

Childhood death in the 19th century<sup>e</sup> century

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  • The young patient.

    SCHEFFER Ary (1795 - 1858)

  • The sick child.

    CAREER Eugène (1849 - 1906)

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Title: The young patient.

Author : SCHEFFER Ary (1795 - 1858)

Creation date : 1824

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 38 - Width 46

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: Magnin Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojedasite web

Picture reference: 99DE19871 / Cat.1938, n ° 877

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

To close

Title: The sick child.

Author : CAREER Eugène (1849 - 1906)

Creation date : 1885

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 200 - Width 246

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J. Schormans website

Picture reference: 86EE1544 / inv 20344

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J. Schormans

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

For a long time, a large part of newborns was promised to die. Under the Ancien Régime, diseases such as smallpox and diphtheria and other conditions such as fever, diarrhea and skin rashes were often treated using traditional pharmacopoeia, that is, with herbal potions, pepper, coffee, egg yolk, or brandy.

In the countryside, we have recourse to offerings and prayers to specialized saints; bonesetters and various healers are also used. These practices, still observed in the XIXe century, partly explain the appalling "massacre of the innocent" which afflicts infants placed in nurses.

According to the calculations of Doctor Bertillon, the infant mortality rate in France in the 1860s was 22%. In the Creuse, it is only 13%; the maximum is reached in Seine-Inférieure (31%) and Eure-et-Loir (37%). Under the Second Empire, the national average was 50%, with peaks at 90% in certain departments such as Loire-Inférieure or Seine-Inférieure.

Image Analysis

Ary Scheffer, who painted in the first half of the XIXe century, represents in The Sick Young the convulsions of a young man watched over by a woman by torchlight. The warm colors of the painting, the shadows cast on the walls, the smallness of the room, give the viewer a feeling of suffocation. The woman, perhaps the mother, helplessly witnesses the suffering of the young patient.

In The Sick Child, painted by Eugène Carrière for the Salon of 1885, the mother seems just as distraught. She tenderly kisses her infant who, sad and sagging, seems totally indifferent to the caresses of her mother and the attentions of her brothers. Their attitude contrasts with the pale colors, the sobriety of the decor, the coldness of this poorly lit room: this tension makes this genre scene a painting that is both melancholy and sentimental. The play of colors and the construction highlight the figure of the child, as if he were the central personality of the family, but at the same time it seems that his relatives have given up on healing him: is he promised to a inevitable death?


The feeling of helplessness that emanates from these two scenes illustrates the kind of fatalism with which society sees tens of thousands of infants die each year. From the 1870s, clear progress improved the living conditions (or rather survival) of newborns.

First, hospital deliveries are a breakthrough. Under IIIe Republic, a series of child protection laws were passed, including the Roussel law of 1874, which organizes nationwide monitoring of young children placed in foster care.

It was above all the progress of the Pastorian era, particularly in obstetrics, infant nutrition, prophylaxis, sterilization and asepsis, which contributed to the drop in infant mortality in the last third of the 19th century.e century. The smallpox vaccine, developed by the Englishman Jenner in 1796, is gradually spreading. "Children were the first to benefit from an extraordinary discovery, that of vaccinia", which reduced the ravages of smallpox (C. ROLLET-ECHALIER, The Early Years Policy under IIIe Republic, INED, PUF, 1990, p. 200).

The death of young children is therefore preventable and infant mortality is declining rapidly. On the eve of the First World War, it stabilized at around 11%. Despite these successes, the situation remains worrying. For example, in the last third of the XIXe century, vaccination still arouses a certain suspicion. In addition, it is not compulsory: it will be necessary to wait until 1902 (for smallpox), 1938 (for diphtheria) and 1940 (for tetanus) so that all children are indiscriminately vaccinated.

  • demography
  • childhood
  • hygiene
  • sickness
  • maternity
  • medicine


Philippe ARIES, The child and family life under the Ancien Régime, Plon, 1960.

Scarlett BEAUVALET, Born in the hospital in the 19th century, Belin, 1997.

Marie-Françoise LÉVY (dir.), The Child, the Family and the French Revolution, Olivier Orban, 1990.

Lion MURARD, Patrick ZYLBERMAN, Hygiene in the Republic. Public health in France or thwarted utopia (1870-1918), Fayard, 1998.

Catherine ROLLET, Early childhood policy under the Third Republic, INED, PUF, 1990.

Catherine ROLLET, Children in the 19th century, Hachette, Daily Life, 2001.

To cite this article

Ivan JABLONKA, "Death in children in the XIXe century "

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