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This Mortal Coil

The History and Future of Death

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This Mortal Coil is a comprehensive study of how the ways we live affect the ways we die. It explains why we died in the past, the reasons we die now and how causes of death are about to profoundly change. This Mortal Coil is by turns fascinating, entertaining and hopeful.

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Andrew Doig


Dementia, heart failure and cancer are now the leading causes of death in industrialised nations, where life expectancy is mostly above 80. A century ago, life expectancy was about 50 and people died mainly from infectious diseases. In the Middle Ages, death was mostly caused by famine, plague, childbirth and war. In the Palaeolithic period, where our species spent 95% of its time, we frequently died from violence and accidents. Causes of death have changed irrevocably across time. In the course of a few centuries we have gone from a world where disease or violence were likely to strike anyone at any age, and where famine could be just one bad harvest away, to one where excess food is more of a problem than a lack of it. Why is this? Why don’t we die from plague, scurvy or smallpox any more? And why are heart attacks, Alzheimer’s and cancer so prevalent today?

This Mortal Coil explains why we died in the past, the reasons we die now and how causes of death are about to profoundly change. University of Manchester Professor Andrew Doig provides an eye-opening, global portrait of death throughout time, looking at particular causes of death – from infectious disease to genetic disease, violence to diet – who they affected, and the people who made it possible to overcome them.


‘Wry, insightful and optimistic, This Mortal Coil brings a compassionate yet amused eye to one of the last great taboos. Essential reading for us all’
Matthew Cobb, Baillie Gifford Prize-shortlisted author of The Idea of the Brain

‘The way we humans have died has changed profoundly over history: from famine and pestilence, to modern lifestyle diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. In this gripping book, Andrew Doig explores the fascinating biology of our own mortality and, crucially, what death can teach us about life’
Prof. Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History

‘Andrew Doig tackles the complex and unsettling history of mortality with matter of fact and clarity but also with tenderness and humanity. This is a remarkable debut interspersing history with science to create a mille feuille of what it means to be human’
Helen Carr