DP18350 Medical Technology and Life Expectancy: Evidence from the Antitoxin Treatment of Diphtheria
This paper studies the impact of the first effective medical treatment for an infectious disease - antitoxin against diphtheria - on the health transition in the United States. Using an instrumental variable for local antitoxin adoption rates and information from approximately 1.6 million death certificates from 1880 to 1914, we find that the rapid diffusion of antitoxin led to a substantial decline in diphtheria mortality rates and increased life expectancy at birth. A hypothetical 10-year delay in the development of antitoxin would have reduced life expectancy at birth by one year, primarily due to reductions in child mortality. We also find that exposure to antitoxin during childhood significantly reduced school absenteeism. Our results suggest that medicine played a more important role in increasing life expectancy in the early 20th century than previously thought.