Doctoral defense of Tina Van Rossem


Used dataset:



September 2018


Doctoral defense


The public defense takes place at the Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), in building D, in the ‘promotiezaal’ auditorium D. 2. 01.


Van Rossem, Tina. “Bruxelles ma belle. Bruxelles mortelle: an investigation into excess mortality in Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century”. PhD dissertation, Vrije Universiteit Brussel-Ghent University, 2018. 


“This research focuses, from a comparative perspective, on the excess mortality that was observed by contemporaries in Brussels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and on the relationship with employment and living conditions. An analysis of quantitative sources using demographic, statistical and spatial techniques is combined with text analyses of qualitative source material. The results show that in Brussels in 1910, life expectancy at birth was 41 years, which was 10 years lower than the national average. The differences with other large cities in Belgium were 5 years or more. The mortality rates of men and women of all ages were high during the Belle Époque in Brussels, but the biggest disadvantage was found for children and adult men. The main causes of death were enteritis for infants, respiratory diseases for children and pulmonary tuberculosis for adult men.

The analyses suggest a strong positive relationship between excess mortality and the dominance of small-scale businesses and cottage industries in Brussels. There were no labour regulations for cottage industries, and homeworkers worked in very dangerous conditions. The situation was probably not much better in artisan workshops and small-scale factories, where trade unions were weak or non-existent. Moreover, the many urban transformation projects in Brussels from the mid-nineteenth century onwards had drastically reduced the living space for the working class. This had caused very high levels of overcrowding in the city. The analyses at the individual level particularly demonstrate that there were major inequalities in the average lifespan of adults, depending on living conditions. The worst conditions were found in the lower lying locations in the southwest of Brussels. Despite the early installation of a water supply network in Brussels, the high levels of enteritis among infants also surprisingly show an additional negative effect of the sanitary conditions.

During the Belle Époque, large-scale redevelopment had created prestigious neighbourhoods, but at the same time the working class was confronted with dangerous working conditions and driven to overcrowded neighbourhoods. The result was that many of them died at a young age.”