Our Ancestors’ Died From What?


Death Certificates Validate Our Lives

The primary purpose of a death certificate is to explain how or why people died. The only thing we know for sure is that people died because they were born; because they were mortal.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that roughly fifty million people in the world this year will die.  This figure includes every fatality in every developed nation on earth. Yet, only about half of all deaths will be recorded with a death certificate. The other half of the world’s people will die in the poorest of places, which maintain no end-of-life documentation.

Before modern death certificates, England, in the early 16th century, had a form known as the Bill of Mortality. No earlier civilizations kept track of their people’s deaths. However, church records of baptisms and burials and recordings of these events by family members within their family bibles offer good proxies for formal records of births and deaths.

Other Vital Statistics Information

The registration of births, marriages, and deaths has a long history in the United States, beginning with a registration law enacted by Virginia in 1632 and a modification of this law enacted by Massachusetts in 1639. Later, when the U.S. Constitution was framed, provision was made for a decennial census but not a national vital registration system; this latter function remained with the states. To obtain national data, the decennial censuses in the latter half of the nineteenth century included questions about vital events, but the method was recognized as inefficient and the results as deficient.

Deaths Registered in Harwich, MA, for the Year 1870

The copy below of a page from the death registry of 1870 in Harwich, Barnstable County, MA, includes one of my ancestors, “Betsey Doane,” who died of “childbirth fever,” soon after giving birth.  “Childbirth fever,” is explained later in this post.

Death Records - MAAccordingly, in 1902, when the U.S. Bureau of the Census was made a permanent agency of the federal government, legislation authorized the Director of the Census Bureau to get, annually, copies of records filed in the vital statistics offices of those states and cities having adequate death registration systems and to publish data from these records. A few years earlier, the Census Bureau had issued a recommended death reporting form (the first “U.S. Standard Certificate of Death”) and requested that each independent registration area adopt it as of January 1, 1900. In 1915, the national birth-registration area was established, and by 1933 all states were registering live births and deaths with acceptable event coverage and providing the required facts to the Census Bureau for the production of national birth and death statistics.

In 1946, responsibility for collecting and publishing vital statistics at the federal level was transferred to the U.S. Public Health Service, first in the National Office of Vital Statistics and later (1960) in the NCHS. In 1987, the NCHS became part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which in turn is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Lives, Deaths, And Medicine Over The Past 300 Years

For over two centuries doctors have defined people’s medical conditions like burns, asthma, epilepsy, and angina–terms still familiar to us today. However, they also used terms for other commonplace causes of death that we may not recognize today. For instance: ague (malaria), dropsy (edema), or spontaneous combustion (especially of “brandy-drinking men and women”).  Sometimes you might see Causa Mortis Incognita, which means the cause of death was not known and the doctors  wrote it in Latin and not admit in English they didn’t have a clue! Happily, many early 19th and 20th century health conditions that led to death have all but disappeared not only from doctors terminology but the diseases and illnesses themselves, thanks to dramatic advances in hygiene and medicine.

Yellow fever was the noted cause of death on the majority of 5,000+ death certificates issued in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, between August 1 and November 9, 1793.  This virus, like malaria, and today’s Zika virus, was carried and transferred by mosquitoes.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, hundreds of thousands of women died needlessly following childbirth from puerperal fever.  Unwashed hands and medical instruments introduced bacteria into women’s uterine tracts triggering this killer infection.

Before the mid-20th century, my family and I were fortunate enough to be among the first people in the United States to receive vaccines to fight smallpox, polio and measles – diseases which once killed thousands of people each year.

Prior to Sir Alexander Fleming’s, accidental discovery of Penicillin in 1929, the use of maggots to clean away dead tissue from infected wounds was commonplace.  Leeches were popular with doctors for blood-letting to “balance” the four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) and to bring an ill patient back into good health. Many quacks also peddled “snake oil elixirs,” as “cure-all medicines.

Below, I used my genealogy software to generate this sample report of 15 persons causes of death from various branches of my ancestral tree dating back to 1617-1944.  Aside from name, birth and death dates, it gives age at death and causes as written by physicians on their death certificates, with only one exception.  The last entry–Pocahontas’ cause of death description–comes from many historical writings about her life and death.

Causes of Death - My Family Tree Sample

 

 

You can follow and understand my ancestor’s causes of death rather easily with only a few exceptions of now archaic terms like “acute gastrointestinal auto intoxication,” “childbirth fever,” and “diphtheria,” similar to other now dated causes of death that I mentioned earlier. In today’s terminology infant “Bessie Charlotte Chambers,” died of blood poisoning; i.e., “toxemia,” a condition in which the blood has toxins produced by body cells at a local source of infection or derived from the growth of microorganisms, possibly from her milk.

Death Certificate-Bessie Charlotte ChambersDiphtheria once was a major cause of illness and death among children.  It is transmitted from person-to-person through coughing and sneezing. Symptoms include sore throat, loss of appetite, and fever. The most notable feature of diphtheria, is the a thick gray substance called a pseudomembrane that forms over nasal tissues, tonsils, larynx, and/or pharynx. The United States recorded 206,000 cases of diphtheria in 1921, resulting in 15,520 deaths. Diphtheria was the third leading cause of death in children in England and Wales in the 1930s.

Since the introduction of effective immunization, starting in the 1920s, diphtheria rates have dropped dramatically in the United States and other countries that vaccinate widely. Between 2004 and 2008, no cases of diphtheria were recorded in the United States. However, the disease continues to play a role globally. In 2007, 4,190 cases of diphtheria were reported, which is likely an underestimate of the actual number of cases.

Finally, below, I have included a table many more terms that genealogists and family historians may come across in their research of family members lives.

Obsolete Medical Terms and Definitions

TERM:

DEFINITION:

AGUE

Used to describe recurring fever and chills of malaria; can mean any fever with chills

BILIOUSNESS

Jaundice or other symptoms associated with liver disease

CHLOROSIS

Iron deficiency anemia

CHOLERA INFANTUM

Summer diarrhea of infants usually the first summer after weaning from breastfeeding

CORRUPTION

Infection

CORYZA

A cold

COSTIVENESS

Constipation

CRAMP COLIC

Appendicitis

CREEPING PARALYSIS

Tabes dorsalis (syphilis)

DENTITION

Infantile convulsions; febrile seizures; infected dental caries (cavities); mercury poisoning from teething powders

DEBILITY

“Failure to thrive” in infancy or old age or loss of appetite and weight from undiagnosed T.B. or cancer.

DROPSY

Edema (swelling), sometimes caused by kidney or heart disease.

DYSPEPSIA

Acid indigestion

ECLAMPSIA

Convulsions of any cause; later applied more specific

EXTRAVASATED BLOOD

Rupture of blood vessel

FALLING SICKNESS

Epilepsy

FLUS OF HUMOUR

Circulation

FRENCH POX

Venereal disease

GALLOPING CONSUMPTION

Rapidly progressing tuberculosis

GREEN SICKNESS

Anemia

HEMORRHAGE AND INFLAMMATION

Ruptured aneurysm or swollen lymph nodes or superficial cancer with ulceration and bleeding; swollen lymph nodes from chronic infection, such as T. B., brucella, anthracis, staphylococcus, etc.

HIP GOUT

Osteomyelitis

JAIL FEVER

Typhus

KING’S EVIL

Scrofula (T.B. of lymph glands, especially of neck)

LUES VENERA

Venereal disease

LUMBAGO

Back pain

LUNG FEVER

Pneumonia

LUNG SICKNESS

Tuberculosis

MALIGNANT FEVER

Fever with hemolysis; malaria with hemorrhagic skin rash; meningococcal infection; putrid malignant fever; typhoid.

MANIA

Insanity

MARASMUS & DROPSY OF THE BRAIN

Hydrocephalus and wasting of the body

MILK LEG

Thrombosis in femoral vein, often after childbirth; death from pulmonary embolism or pelvic infection (usual cause for milk leg)

MORTIFICATION

Gangrene usually of the leg; trauma; infection; diabetes; aneurysm of aorta

NOSTALGIA

Homesickness

A PERIPNEUMONIA

Pneumonia plus pleurisy (inflammation of the pleura usually with fever, painful & difficult respiration, cough and fluid into the pleural cavity)

PUTRID FEVER

Diphtheria

PUTRID SORE THROAT

Gangrenous pharyngitis; tonsillitis with peritonsillar or retropharyngeal abscess.

QUINSY

Tonsillitis

REMITTING FEVER

Malaria

ROSE COLD

Hay fever incorrectly thought to be caused by rose pollen.

SANGUINEOUS CRUST

Scab

SCREWS

Rheumatism

SCROFULA

See KING’S EVIL

SHIP’S FEVER

Typhus

SOFTENING OF THE BRAIN

Dementia (Syphilitic or nonsyphilitic); cerebral hemorrhage; stroke

STOMACH TROUBLE

Complication of gastric ulcer perforation plus pancreatitis, hemorrhage, cancer.

STRANGERY

Rupture

SUMMER COMPLAINT

Diarrhea and vomiting; gastroenteritis

THROAT DISTEMPER

Tonsillitis; diphtheria

VENESECTION

Bleeding

 

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