No, they don’t study noses, though they need skins thick as rhinos’ to endure the proboscis-related one-liners that get slung their way. Their jobs vary somewhat from state to state, but you can generally find them sitting in the lowest-salary cubicles at state health departments, tabulating mortality. Nosologists are the grunts who turn stiffs into stats. Hour after hour, day after day, they sift through death certificates, referring constantly to a 1,243-page manual whose heft and agate type might call to mind the arcana associated with that other inevitability in life. This tome, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, provides the cause-of-death codes nosologists enter in their spreadsheets.
It’s an important job, because it helps public health officials keep solid stats on the Grim Reaper’s methods. It is from nosologists (noso is the Greek root for “disease”) that we learn whether, for example, breast cancer or diabetes is on the rise. But the work requires a tolerance for death, not to mention endless patience for forms and numbers and papers. “It’s fascinating,” says one nosologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Sometimes the death certificate lists several problems, and you have to classify the underlying cause.”