Robert William Fogel Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Economic History: Conversation with Robert William Fogel, 1993 Nobel Laureate in Economics; 11/16/04 by Harry Kreisler

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Technology and Methodology

Another important element of your work is the methodological sophistication that you have brought to these studies. You were an early user of computers to gather this information. You said in your lecture that if the technology hadn't come in to assist you, the costs would have been so prohibitive that you never could have done some of the work, for example, on aging. Talk a little about that. You've made clear to us the way you've brought history and economic theory to the agenda, but also the sophisticated instruments that you had to work with were very important.

We've been studying the aging of the Union Army cohort, the cohort that fought during the Civil War. That was the first cohort to reach age 65 in the twentieth century. So if we're interested in how the process of aging has changed during living memory, that's an important cohort to study.

And there is data. The War Department gathered the information about these people.

Yes. The nature of the Union Army pension was such that the average pensioner had a full-scale physical examination about once every three years. Those medical records have survived in the National Archives. Our research team is 50 percent physicians, and they've gone over these records. They said if they were in a rural area and had access to the high-tech diagnostic techniques we use today, they could not have done better than these doctors did. So it was absolutely first-rate clinical medicine.

From that we've been able to learn a great deal about differences in the burden of diseases and in the process of aging. The Union Army cohort aged about ten years more rapidly than we do. For example, in my cohort, the average age of onset of arthritis is about age sixty-five. In the Union Army cohort, it was about age fifty-four. So we pushed back the age of onset of arthritis by eleven years. The same thing is true of heart disease, respiratory disease, and so on. All these things start later. Not only that, the proportion whoever get these diseases is about a third less than it used to be. And once you get it, we have excellent interventions. We have drug interventions, we have other surgical interventions that are effective. They may not extend our life, but they greatly improve the quality of life.

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