Theses Doctoral

Lights Out in Gotham: A Social History of Death in New York City, 1946-1959

Price, Yoka

This dissertation offers a social history of death in post-World War II New York City and the ways in which social changes in the city shaped ideas about death, dying, and health among New Yorkers. During the period between 1946 and 1959, the city landscape would dramatically evolve as a result of new developments including changing disease patterns, increased prosperity, and anxiety over the unfolding Cold War. These changes were also instrumental in shaping how New Yorkers understood their mortality: death became an increasingly complex experience that could be interpreted and managed through advances in medical technology and individual efforts to stay healthy.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, health became an increasingly important arena to assert the power of the United States to the global world and death was designated as an unwanted outcome that was inevitable but not necessarily uncontrollable. Spurred on by the newfound significance given to the health of citizens, various actors such as the life insurance industry, cancer advocacy groups, and city health officials shifted the discourse on death by rejecting undue fatalism and highlighting human effort in preventing premature death. Drawing upon a wide array of archival sources that range from social service reports of terminal patients to annual reports of life insurance companies, this dissertation sheds light on how death became a complex conceptual construction that was commodified and modernized in the postwar period.

The dissertation also explores the questions of social worth, namely whose lives mattered and whose deaths were concerning, and to whom these distinctions carried weight. The attempts to prolong the lives of individuals whose labor would contribute to society became a primary goal in post-WWII America, and these notions continue to shape contemporary public health debates in triaging the lives of people.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2027-09-04.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Rosner, David K.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 7, 2022