England, Diseases and Causes of Death (National Institute)

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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[edit | edit source]

Medical Terminology[edit | edit source]

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:

Olive Tree Genealogy
Archaic and Obsolete Medical Terms
Hall Genealogy

Chart: Obsolete Medical Terminology

Ancient Modern
Ague Fever and chills of malaria, found in marshy
areas of Britain; can also mean rheumatic
heart disease
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
Bad Blood Syphilis
Black Cholera Cholera morbus
Black death Bubonic plague
Bloody flux Dysentery
Botch Bubonic plague
Brain fever Meningitis
Child-bed fever Puerperal fever
Chin cough Whooping cough
Climacteric Severe sudden occurrence of something e.g.
heart attack or stroke
Consumption Pulmonary tuberculosis
Corruption Infection
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
Falling sickness Epilepsy
Famine fever Typhus
Fever Could mean any febrile condition, but
especially typhus
Fowle disease Venereal disease
French pox Venereal disease especially syphilis
Galloping consumption Rapidly progressive TB
Gaol fever Typhus
General paralysis (of the
insane) (GPI)
A very common late stage of syphilis;
tertiary syphilis
Glandular fever Mononucleosis
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)
Lockjaw Tetanus
Malignant fever Typhus
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
certain foods.
Mortification Infection causing death of a part of the body,
changing it to a black stinking mass.
Pest Bubonic plague
Phthisis Pulmonary tuberculosis
Putrid Fever Diphtheria, or sometimes typhus fever
Putrid Fever Typhus
Quinsy Tonsillitis
Softening of the brain Stroke
Spanish pox Venereal disease especially syphilis
Spotted fever Typhus
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
the others!
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
certain foods

Occupational Diseases[edit | edit source]

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 wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.