February, 2018

Height and social inequality in the city of Madrid in the 20th century

The human life cycle is typified by a long and prolonged growth which gives us great biological plasticity, and allows us to adapt to changing environmental situations. Thus, the human life cycle has critical stages when the rate of growth is very intense –during the foetal period and childhood, and later, during adolescence- so that a negative energetic balance due to illness, excessive physical effort and malnutrition will affect growth irreversibly, determining biological variables and influencing patterns of health and illness. Adult height of a population is therefore a good evaluation point for the growth conditions of people and the study of change over time (their secular change) allows us to evaluate both the impact on socio-economic transformation from a time perspective, and the impact of socio-economic inequality between populations at a specific moment.

Both in Spain and in other countries where research has been carried out into secular changes in anthropometric variables, there are hardly any studies on variation in height in large urban centres. A pioneering and exceptional work was that carried out in 1829 by Louis-René Villermé (1782-1863) —considered one of the founders of Public Health in France— about the city of Paris, and which was quoted by Federico de Olóriz (1855-1912) in his accession speech to the Real Academia de Medicina in 1896, a text in which he presents his own analysis of height variations according to district in Madrid among “the lads of 1981” (p. 42). Olóriz describes a difference in height of up to 3 cm. between young people who live in the neighbourhood of Ensanche, predominantly bourgeois, and thos from the more popular neighbourhoods next to the river Manzanares, differences which he explains are due to the health conditions of the ones and the others.

In the Jornadas Científicas Desigualdad, pobreza y bienestar en España: nuevas miradas, nuevos enfoques, which took place in the Universidad de Murcia on 18th and 19th January, we presented the analysis of secular change in height in young madrileños from five districts in Madrid (Centro, Salamanca, Tetuán, Vallecas and Villaverde) called up –aged 21- between 1936 and 1986, data conserved in the Archivo Militar General de Guadalajara. Over this highly turbulent political period of great socio-economic changes in Spain, the increase in height for all the districts in question was 6.17 cm., with an average which increased from 165.89 to 171.98 cm. The increase was greatest among the youth of Vallecas (6.91 cm.) —a district to which the picture of a shantytown corresponds- and the least among those from Villaverde (3.85 cm.). Although they fall off over the century, differences in height in the city of Madrid persist until the late 1970s, with shorter stature among the youth of popular and working class districts, which are less privileged socio-economically. In spite of the global increase in height over the period, the analysis shows a decrease in height among those conscripted from 1945 to the early 50s, which bears witness to the negative effect of the Civil War and autarchy in the first stages of Franco’s dictatorship, an impact which was also less in the districts which, within the series as a whole, had the greatest height, namely Centro and Salamanca.

This study of the differences in height in districts in Madrid over the 20th century makes clear the existence of marked social inequalities which conditioned the potential for growth of the groups born in different parts of the capital, a horizontal segregation by districts which will appear –more moderately- up to the present in socio-economic and demographic variables such as income, level of education, employment, poverty, life expectancy, etc.


The study presented at the Jornadas Científicas Desigualdad, pobreza y bienestar en España: nuevas miradas, nuevos enfoques (Universidad de Murcia, 18th and 19th Januaryd 2018) is entitled “Generational statures and by residential district in the city of Madrid during the 20th century” and has been carried out by  Carlos Varea, José Manuel Terán, Haiqian  Ma, Pablo Lahoud, Sergio López Medel and Elena Sánchez García (Universidad Autonoma de Madrid) and Luis Ríos (Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN-CSIC, Madrid).