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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Diseases and Causes of Death
Family History journals are replete with notes on odd and amusing causes of death such as:
- Stoppage in the stomick.
- Extreme filthiness.
- Eating his own hair.
- Killed by standing too near a cow and a bull!
Some general points to note:
- People were buried alive in the Middle Ages and later for various reasons, for example unconsciousness due to hypothermia, drug or alcohol overdose, or diabetic coma.
- How many infant deaths were misdiagnosed? Was pneumonia really cystic fibrosis? And could a succession of infant deaths have been due to the rhesus factor or congenital syphilis?
- Allergies were not understood.
- Schools were dependent on Attendance numbers for their funding in the late 19th century so often did not close when there was an outbreak of infectious disease.
- Before doctors possessed sophisticated diagnostic techniques they tended to write symptoms rather than causes on death certificates.
The commonest medical terminology encountered by the family historian researching death and burial registers is given in the chart below. For more on the conditions associated with our ancestors’ diseases as well as conditions of childbirth see Nigel Underwood’s 1991 article, Survival of the Fittest? Jeanette Jerger’s book, A Medical Miscellany for Genealogists on medical terminology for (mainly North American) genealogists is worthwhile, and Mearns’ Words Used to Describe Medical Conditions in the 18th and 19th C. (Aberdeen and North-East Scotland Family History Society Journal #73, page 33-35) gives a list of Scottish terms.
There are several websites devoted to this subject, for example:
Chart: Obsolete Medical Terminology
|Ague|| Fever and chills of malaria, found in marshy|
areas of Britain; can also mean rheumatic
|Anasarca|| Generalized massive edema (swelling)|
starting in the feet and spreading upwards
|Apoplexy||Stroke, sudden paralysis|
|cites||Water in the abdomen|
|Asiatic Cholera||Cholera morbus|
|Black Cholera||Cholera morbus|
|Black death||Bubonic plague|
|Child-bed fever||Puerperal fever|
|Chin cough||Whooping cough|
|Climacteric|| Severe sudden occurrence of something e.g.|
heart attack or stroke
|Decline||Usually a tuberculosis|
|Delirium Tremens (DTs)||Hallucination due to alcoholism|
|Dropsy|| Oedema / Edema (swelling) often caused by|
kidney or heart disease, liver failure and
several other causes.
|Dyspnoea||Difficulty in breathing|
|Enteric fever||Typhoid, but confused with typhus before 1860|
|Fever|| Could mean any febrile condition, but|
|Fowle disease||Venereal disease|
|French pox||Venereal disease especially syphilis|
|Galloping consumption||Rapidly progressive TB|
| General paralysis (of the
| A very common late stage of syphilis;|
|Hydrocele||Water in the scrotal bag|
|Hydrocephalus||Enlarged head, water on the brain|
|Hydrothorax||Water in the chest|
|King's Evil||Scrofula (TB of lymphatic glands)|
|Marasmus|| Infantile debility, a condition where the|
child is unable to absorb nutrition from food.
Could be caused by malnutrition or heart
problem, congenital disease or intolerance to
|Mortification|| Infection causing death of a part of the body,|
changing it to a black stinking mass.
|Putrid Fever||Diphtheria, or sometimes typhus fever|
|Softening of the brain||Stroke|
|Spanish pox||Venereal disease especially syphilis|
|St. Anthony's fire||Erysipelas|
|Struma||Scrofula (TB of lymphatic glands)|
|Summer complaint|| Diarrhoea usually in infants and caused|
by spoiled milk
|Syncope|| Fainting, or sudden loss of consciousness,|
probably associated with heart attack; can
also mean an irregular heartbeat
|Teething|| A catch-all, meaningless diagnosis for|
thousands of infant deaths. Goodger
thinks that 'over-enthusiastic use of the arch-pacifier,
laudanum' accounted for some, but
'bewilderment of the doctor' for a lot of
|Throat distemper or fever|| Most probably Diphtheria, but sometimes|
confused with scarlet fever
|Visitation of God||Probably stroke or heart attack|
|Wasting|| Could be caused by malnutrition or heart|
problem, congenital disease or intolerance to
Many of our ancestors’ occupations contributed to their demise mainly because of generally dirty conditions, poor nutrition, causes of disease being unknown and the effect of working conditions not considered. Some of the major problems were:
- Alcohol-related problems, which could easily occur when beer was safer to drink than the water, and spirits would be a temptation amongst people associated with the trade who got free perks with the job. The hopelessness of the lower classes was often drowned nightly in gin or beer.
- Anthrax, or woolsorter’s disease, first entered England in 1847 and is primarily an animal disease. Tradesmen dealing with carcasses, hair or wool of infected animals get it, but person-to-person transmission is very rare. Before the mid-20th century it frequently lead to septicaemia and death; today vaccination and antibiotic treatment are available. Bergman wrote a good article on anthrax for family historians, and Dart provided important additional information.
- Lead poisoning caused early death amongst smelters, plumbers, painters, paper stainers and pottery glazers. They suffered through disabling colic, anaemia, failing vision and paralysis.
- Mercury poisoning took its toll of looking-glass (mirror) silverers, water gilders who coated metal with a mixture of gold and mercury, and hatters because the effects of working with mercury were unknown. They lost weight, trembled and had impaired speech so appearing as mad as a hatter.
- Puerperal (or Childbed) Fever and other complications of childbirth can be placed in this category and took many women’s lives before antisepsis and nutritional deficiencies were understood. The role of midwives is explained by Joan E Grundy in her 2003 Family Tree Magazine article, Midwifery and Childbirth in 17th and 18th Century England, and puerperal fever and other complications of childbirth by Wood (2000b).
- Silicosis, also called stone-cutter’s phthisis, and pulmonic disease, is caused by dust, particularly that from silica or quartz and was common amongst potters, miners, dry grinders, flint knappers, sand blasters and stonemasons. A similar affliction, siderosis, caused by inhaling metallic particles was common amongst saw makers and Sheffield cutlers, being also known as grinder’s rot. The symptoms of coughing up thick mucus and bronchitis were similar to TB and were undoubtedly frequently misdiagnosed. When a man’s workplace was part of his home then the whole family suffered. Other occupations such as French polishers, flax workers and millers were also constantly surrounded by dust and could contract similar diseases. Shoddy workers (rag tearers) developed shoddy cough (Goodger).
J. L. Goodger offers further insight into occupational diseases and further reference material in his article Life in the 19th Century. Who Said That Hard Work Never Hurt Anyone? Family Tree Magazine Vol 8 #8.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.