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posted on July 12, 2011 16:46

Vital Stats celebrates 100 years of record keeping

Each year, Pam Harder, a research analyst in the Bureau of Vital Statistics, combs through the names parents give to Idaho babies, charting the most popular and looking for the most unique.
The effort results in one of the most requested of the many data tables produced each year by Idaho’s repository of the official records that mark the important milestones in our lives: Birth, death, marriage, divorce.
This year, the Bureau of Vital Statistics celebrates its 100th year. To commemorate the anniversary, the bureau celebrated earlier this month creating this informal publication that highlights just some of the work the bureau does in storing thousands of vital records and pulling the data contained in them for reports used by students, Public Health officials, university researchers and other members of the public.
“We keep the records of vital events and then produce information for a variety of purposes,” says James Aydelotte, the bureau’s chief and the Idaho State Registrar. Those purposes might include establishing identity and citizenship, registering for school, or obtaining death benefits. All that, says Aydelotte, is really just the beginning.
For example, the chart tracking baby names gets tucked into annual Idaho Vital Statistics Report, along with the number of births (23,726 in 2009), how many Idahoans died (11,065 in 2009) and how many Idahoans married (13,711 in 2009) and divorced (7,729 in 2009).
The report is one of several the bureau produces. Harder enjoys helping put these together, but it’s the unexpected requests from the researchers and the curious that come in daily that she says makes her job one of the best at DHW.
“The ones that are really interesting to me require going back in time,” she says. “For example, people sometimes want us to look at the number of polio deaths before the vaccine became common or compile deaths related to past epidemics.”
Harder never knows what request is going to land on her desk and lead her deep into the thousands and thousands of bits of data collected and stored by the bureau. People might want information on motorcycle deaths or drownings as they look for trends. Researchers might ask for data tables related to the more than 100 questions filled out on each birth certificate now filed in the bureau.
Harder and her staff don’t interpret the data; they pull it out, organize it, provide it in tables for university projects or interested citizens who then can use the data to apply for grants, set policy, evaluate health programs, or argue for changes in law or practice.
Before 1911, when the bureau became official, vital documents were stored at the county level. Bringing them all together in a single state repository increases the security and allows for the kind of research Harder and her staff can do today.
If you browse through the Anniversary Publication, you’ll find a page charting the five leading causes of death between 1940 and 2009. You’ll see an increase in heart disease followed later by an increase in cancer. Another graphic shows some of the rarest causes of death in the past 10 years: By bee sting (4), by light bulb (3) and by botulism (1).
If you are hungry for even more data, you can find the annual Vital Statistics Report and some of the other documents the bureau produces each year on its website.
Browse through the 1975 and 1976 reports and you’ll find that one of Harder’s predecessors had a sense of humor about marriage (check out the illustrations of the marriage and divorce rate charts for those respective years here).
If that’s not enough, Harder has copies of the Vital Statistics Report going back to the first: a three-page 1938 report typed on onion skin paper. In that year, there were 502,000 people living in Idaho; 11,379 babies were born; 4,565 people died, including more than 100 from tuberculosis.
J.N. Hurty, Phar.D., M.D., summed up way back in 1910, just before the bureau began, why the work of recording vital statistics is so important: “The accurate collection, tabulation and analysis of records of births, still-births, death, marriages, divorces and sickness may be said to constitute the bookkeeping of humanity.”

Story by Emily Simnitt