Sunday, June 14, 2015

They died of what? Causes of death found in the 1800's records

So, on Thursday I momentarily forgot how to walk and now find myself the proud owner of a hideous black walking boot due to a fracture of a very small but very important bone in my foot. Bored and propped up on the couch with my laptop, I was curious as to how my ancestors would have dealt with fractures and other illnesses before the age of "modern" medicine. Vermont has great death records which lists the cause of death. Many of these terms are out of use today and I had to look some of them up.  Here are a few of the most interesting ones that I found.


Apoplexy: This was a stroke, obviously there was no effective treatment available. However, this did not stop Doctors from treating stroke victims with laxatives and the occasional bloodletting.

Bright's disease: One of my ancestors died at age 19 in 1913, shortly after she married. Her death certificate said she died as the result of convulsions and acute Bright's disease.  Named for Dr. Richard Bright who first identified a group of symptoms and recognized that they were the manifestations of a specific disease, naturally named for him.  Bright's disease is called now known as Nephritis. Bright's disease could be acute or chronic and was frequently found in patients who had diabetes. Symptoms included convulsions, swelling of feet, dark urine and kidney stones. There was no successful treatment for the disease. In 1898 my 2X Great Aunt Maria Thornton Niles died of Acute Tubus Nephritis, was this also Bright's disease?

Consumption: Ah, the dreaded consumption, also known as Tuberculosis. This disease has been around for thousands of years, it was well known to the Greek healer Hippocrates. It was called consumption as it seen to slowly "consume" the sufferer, but it was also known by its Greek name of Phthisis.  Although TB comes in many forms, consumption is what we know as Pulmonary TB. My 2X Great Uncle Nathan Thornton died at age 26 of the disease, there was little treatment and no known cure until the age of antibiotics.

Diphtheria: In 1910, my Grandfather's 5 year old brother Wayne Thornton died of Post Diphtheric Paralysis. He had had diphtheria one and a half years prior to his death and had suffered from the paralysis for 10 days. Diphtheria is a bacterial infection which results in fever, sore throat, swollen glands of the neck and a causes a bizarre thick grey sheet of material to form in the back of the throat, which can block the airway. Left untreated it can damage the heart and kidneys. The toxins can also cause severe nerve damage resulting in paralysis.  If the nerves in the throat are paralysis then the victim is unable to breathe, which is what probably happened to Wayne. It must have been heartbreaking for my Great Grandparents to watch their young child die this way.  Today this disease is prevented by a vaccine.

Dropsy: My 3rd great grandmother, Phebe Carter Blanchard Thornton died of Dropsy. This one I have actually heard of. Dropsy was the name given for Congestive Heart Failure. There was little treatment for this disease other than the poisonous Foxglove plant. Today Foxglove is the source of Digoxin.

Empelmia: no idea what this is. maybe a typo.

Enteritis: An inflammation of the bowel resulting in diarrhea. It was caused by the ingestion of pathogenic microorganisms.

Erysipelas: My 2nd great grandfather Samuel Thornton died of Erysipelas, also known as St. Antony's Fire. This was a skin infection caused by a group A Streptococcus bacteria. Symptoms included fever, chills, headache, fatigue and vomiting. This would be followed by a very nasty rash.  The rash could appear anywhere on the body and it was red and hard with an orange peel appearance. Today it is quickly cured by antibiotics. In 1874 treatment would include laxatives and painting the rash with iodine.

Hydropesia:  This is another name for Dropsy or Congestive Heart Failure

LaGrippe: This was another name for Influenza.  The great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was also known as LaGrippe. The only treatment was comfort measures.  The sufferer either recovered or didn't.  Their overall general health played a role in their recovery, however during the 1918 outbreak, healthy young adults were known to have died within hours of showing symptons of the flu.

Marasmus: 11 year old Margaret Rowland died in 1899 of Marasmus.  I have to admit I have never heard this term.  Apparently it is a form of severe malnutrition generally caused by starvation.  I hope that was not the case for poor Margaret.

Old Age: my favorite, seems to be most folks who died after about age 65.

Paresis: Described as weakness of voluntary movement. It was once used to describe symptoms of untreated syphilis.

Phthisis: See Consumption.

Random: Sometimes the death certificate gives a very vague cause of death. Some that I have seen are: insanity, general break down, disablity, exhaustion with a slight shock, convulsions from teething,

Scarlet Fever: In 1859 my Great Uncle David Thornton and his wife Lydia lost four of their children within a month and a half. They all died of some variation of Scarlet Fever.  Six year old Adoniram Judson, died on 4 February of "canker rash".  Sumner, age nine, died on the 6th. On the 7th their youngest son, Frank Andrew, also died of canker rash and putrid sore throat.  On the 19th of March, their daughter Keziah died of Scarlatina.  Scarlet Fever is another illness caused by Strep. It is easily cured with antibiotic today, but back in the days before the miracle of penicillin, epidemics of scarlet fever claimed the lives of millions.

Softening of the Brain: In 1875, 52 year old Lucy Rowell died of 'softening of the brain'. I am not exactly sure what this was referring to or how they would know this without an autopsy. In any case, it doesn't sound good.

Stricture of the Intestine: One of my 2X Great Grandfather's brothers, Joseph N. Thornton died at age 40, in 1898, of something called a stricture of the intestine. A stricture is a narrowing of the small bowel which may result in a blockage.  This narrowing is often caused by repeated inflammation and scarring of the bowel walls. This inflammation often occurs in people with Crohn's disease. Today these strictures are treated by surgical procedures unknown in 1898. Prednisone, a common treatment for inflammation was not available prior to the 1950's.

Uraemia:  This literally means urea in the blood. Urea is normally excreted in urine but in people suffering from kidney failure it is found in greater quantities in the blood. So a person who died of uraemia died from kidney failure.

Post a Comment

Have a great day!