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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

‘Surprisingly upbeat…full of curious facts.’
Robbie Millen, The Times

‘an upbeat book about death… a highly readable book that really does put the work of the Grim Reaper in perspective.’
Sophie Roell, Five Books

‘An utterly fascinating history of death, this masterful volume traces changes in the causes of mortality over the centuries’

‘an empowering story of human ingenuity’
The Economist

‘Andrew Doig’s entertaining investigation into how and why we die, and what it teaches us about how different societies have lived, is an absorbing read…This is a gripping and fascinating book; informative and seasoned with dry humour.’
The Daily Mail

‘a wonderful long-term perspective on our current situation… Doig has done his research but never lets his narrative get bogged down or feel dry. Oddly life-affirming stuff.’
Doug Johnstone, Big Issue

‘a compelling story that’s made admirably accessible’
Kate Womersley

‘Told in five acts like a Shakespearean tragedy, Andrew Doig’s book considers our vulnerabilities and vices, from typhoid to tobacco … A compelling story that is made admirably accessible’ Financial Times

‘A fascinating, clear-eyed study of the major causes of death humanity has faced through the ages …  The obvious beauty of This Mortal Coil is that in being a history of death, it is also a history of life, and a brilliant, fascinating one at that’

‘[Doig] writes clearly and with occasional flashes of wit … This is a book that deserves a wide and appreciative audience’

‘Andrew Doig offers a portrait of the final exit across the centuries’
Observer, Non-Fiction to Look Out For in 2022

‘From the black death to small pox, Andrew Doig’s This Mortal Coil reminds us that some of humankind’s most miraculous innovations – including vaccines, statistics and gene sequencing – arose from society’s attempts to thwart death … It’s hard to imagine a book with more relevant insights into how societies fail and succeed when navigating threats to life’
City AM

‘The story of how we die is deeply entwined with all of science, technology, economics, global health, sociology and human behaviour – in other words, pretty much everything. Which amounts to a book that is profound and original’
Daniel M. Davis, author of The Beautiful Cure and The Secret Body

The most fascinating book I’ve read in a long time. As much about how we live as how we die. Riveting’
Anna Mazzola, author of The Clockwork Girl

‘Big history meets biology in this meticulous chronicle of how death has shaped us, and how we have shaped it. Doig illuminates the historical and scientific idiosyncrasies behind our most universal experience explaining how, by trading plants and plagues, discovering continents and life-saving drugs, our collective past has determined our individual futures. If you’re expecting a fascinating insight into why we die, This Mortal Coil delivers – but you’ll also get an eye-opening account of how we’ve lived’
Andrew Steele, author of Ageless

‘In this detailed exploration of the many different ways in which human life can end, Andrew Doig takes us on a killer ride from the earliest systematic records of death, through the tremendous toll infection has had over history to the ways in which we kill ourselves and others through drugs, pollution and motor vehicles. If you are dying to know how we die, this is the book for you’
John Tregoning, author of Infectious

‘This is a wonderful book: a history of life expectancy, of disease, of death, and of medicine all rolled up into one. An exceptional instance of a book with lots of statistics which is throughout an enthralling read. For anyone who wants to understand how we have come to live so long, and what we are likely to die of, this is a must read — and, since birth and death are the only things we all have in common, no subject could be more important to understand who we are and what will become of us. The conception of the book is so obvious that the big puzzle is why hasn’t someone written a book like this before? And the answer has to be that you need an extraordinary range and depth of knowledge to write a book like this, and Andrew Doig turns out to be the perfect author’
David Wootton

‘Looks at the ways in which causes of death have altered over time, from environmental triggers (plagues and famine) to genetics (heart disease and stroke), who suffers from them and what these reveal about how our ancestors lived and died. On the bright side, Doig also tracks the various ways in which diseases have been controlled (the discovery of vitamin C, and the setting up of the 1592 Bills of Mortality during the second plague in London, for example), the impact of social healthcare and the development of medical knowledge’
Art Review

‘In terms of ambitious projects, “a history of death” comes a close second to “a history of life”. Andrew Doig … keeps the subject manageable by focusing on death as a scientific phenomenon while never losing sight of what it means for individuals and society … This sweeping story is very much about how we live because this determines how we die … This is a measured, accessible history that employs shattering events and graphic stories to flesh out the facts and bald statistics of how death comes to us all’
Sydney Morning Herald

‘Death is such a fascinating teacher.  Andrew Doig’s amazing text signposts those heroes who have learned from death and created ways to improve and save lives. Mortui vivos docent – the dead teach the living’
Professor Dame Sue Black, author of All That Remains 

‘Impressively wide-ranging and appealingly written.’

‘Being a history of death, however, this is also a history of life, and a brilliant, fascinating one at that.’
The Scotsman