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Some Medical Terms Used in Old Records

Death records, beginning in the late 1880s, generally provided a cause of death. This gives the genealogical researcher clues to the life, times, travails and challenges of their ancestors.

Medical terms for disease vary by time period, geographical location and the education of the physician, undertaker or clerk. Diseases are generally identified by signs and symptoms. Many unrelated diseases have the same symptoms - fever, chills, diarrhea and vomiting. The cause of death may simply indicate the nature of the illness prior to death, not the exact cause of death.

Cholera, Malaria, Diphtheria and Typhoid Fever

It is important to keep in mind the sanitary and housing conditions that existed in the late 1800 to early 1900s. Michigan, blessed with an abundance of water and woods, was a humid clime. It is muggy and hot in the summer, snow laden in the winter. The land was often described as swampy, with bogs, marshes and sand-barrens.

Epidemics of diphtheria, cholera and malaria swept through the state during the late 1800s. Epidemics often carried away whole families and communities. The virulent nature of the epidemics left the whole family or community ill, with no one to care for the sick. They wasted away due to dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea.


Cholera (vibrio cholerae) is an acute infection of the bowel with profuse watery diarrhea and vomiting, causing severe dehydration. A person may contract Cholera by drinking contaminated water, milk or by eating contaminated food. Because of the poor or non-existent sanitation excreta from infected people was often dumped into the water supply. Cholera reached New York harbor in 1832. It spread throughout the US via the transportation system of railways, canals, and steamboats.

Cholera was variously referred to as Cholera Morbus, Choleric Fever or Dysentery on death certificates.

Cholera Infantum

Cholera Infantum (or summer diarrhea of infants) was a major cause of infant death in the late 1800s. The term cholera described the symptoms that the infant experience. Cholera Infantum is distinct from the epidemic Cholera described above. It was a non-contagious disease of young children who had been weaned from the breast. It occurred chiefly between the months of April and October.

Cholera Infantum was also called summer complaint, water gripes or weaning brash on the death certificate.


Malaria (plasmodium vivax transmitted by mosquitos) came with the early settlers to America. Its highest incidence occurred during the Civil War. Many veterans died years later of its side effects. Intermittent symptoms occurred for as long as 30 years after the initial infection, creating a general debility and resistance to other diseases.

Malaria was particularly prevalent near marshy swamplands where mosquitoes multiplied rapidly. Michigan, with its humid weather and swampy lands was the perfect place for the malaria parasite. By the late 1800s malaria began to disappear in Michigan as land was cleared and drained. The introduction of cattle also provided the mosquito with a different host.

Malaria was also transmitted along with the general movement from Canada to Michigan in the 1800's. There were malaria outbreaks as late as 1873. What is considered the malaria district is along the Lake Huron and Ontario shores - in Canada the counties of Newark, Lambton, Kent, Essex and up to Toronto and the Huron Shore in Michigan and New York.

Malaria was referred to as remitting fever, ague (used to describe the recurring chills and fever), charges fever, chill blains, chill fever, panama fever, swamp fever or the shakes.


Diphtheria (Corynebacterium diphtheriae), or contagious disease of the throat, swept through Michigan during all seasons of the year, although more prevalent in the fall and winter months. It was the dreaded scourge, sweeping whole families away in its path. The symptoms are similar to scarlet fever and croup and the diagnosis was not always correct. The majority of cases occurred in children under the age of 10. Transmission of the disease was through contact with an infected individual or through material contaminated by the patient. It thus spread rapidly through families.

Diphtheria was also call putrid fever or thyphus diptheria.

Typhoid Fever

Typhoid fever (Salmonella typhi) is a water borne illness and is most often found where there are unsanitary conditions. Crowded living conditions, army camps, and on shipboard are primary places for typhoid fever to take hold. The illness is marked by great exhaustion, fever, headache and abdominal pains.

Typhus or typhoid fever was referred to by many names: bilious fever, camp fever, jail fever, hospital fever, putrid fever, ship fever or spotted fever.

Today, with our ability to distinguish between micro-organisms, we are able to pinpoint the cause of disease and death. In the late 1800 and early 1900s the cause of death was often based on the signs and symptoms the person exhibited. In the late 1800 and early 1900's, infectious diseases were the most serious threat to health and well being. The most common causes of death were the respiratory diseases pneumonia and uberculosis. The second most common cause of death was the cluster of diarrheal diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Collectively the infectious diseases are known as communicable diseases because they are spread by contact with an infected host. Close human contact provided the conditions in which infestations spread unchecked.

Short life expectancies were the norm in the late 1800's. This led, in part, to large families as the norm. Our ancestors had numbers of children to insure that there were enough to help with the daily tasks of living. Epidemics could sweep away half or more of the children and adults in a family.

BeginnBeginning in the late 1800's improvements in living conditions and sanitation heralded a shift in the cause of death. This improvement also extended the life expectancy. The chronic and lifestyle diseases, such as heart disease, displaced pneumonia as the primary cause of death. Families also began to have fewer children and fewer women died in childbirth.

Puerperal Fever

Also called child bed fever, puerperal fever, puerperal exhaustion, metritis or purpura. Puerperal means "childbearing." Death is caused by bacterial infection during and after the process of birth. In the late 1800's the disease was considered to be a common and dreaded consequence of motherhood.

Prior to the advent of hospitals nationwide in the 1930's and 40's, most women gave birth at home with a midwife in attendance. In the l800's childbirth was second only to tuberculosis as the leading cause of death in women in their childbearing years.

Infection, post partum, was a common problem. The infection may have been generated by the trauma of birth, the hand that examined the woman giving birth, or exposure to an environment that was dirty or septic.

Surgical intervention, when needed, for childbirth was generally performed by the barber surgeons of the time. Infant mortality for cesarean section was near 100%. The mother, if she survived, was often debilitated. Surgical intervention was also a leading cause of puerperal fever.

The possibility also existed for the woman to hemorrhage to death or to die from convulsions or "fits".

Post partum blood clots in the legs might also cause death and be listed on the death certificate as milk leg.


Commonly known in the 1800's as consumption, lung sickness, long sickness, white swelling, the white plague, marasmis, phthisis, wasting disease or tuberculosis of the lungs. The evidence for tuberculosis can be traced back mummies in Egypt.

Tuberculosis most commonly affects the respiratory system, but may affect other parts of the body. TB may be acute or chronically progressive. It is spread by the act of breathing by people with an active case of the disease. 100 years ago one in every seven people died from TB.

Prior to 1950, when effective drugs were found to combat TB, many folk remedies were used to treat the disease. Potassium cyanide, unusual diets, leeches and cleansing rituals. Special sanitoriums were created for the TB patient where rest, fresh air and healthy diet were thought to prevent transmission of the disease to others.

The progressive wasting and emaciation of the individual gave rise to the term consumption. Persistent coughing is the most common symptom of an active case of TB. The diagnosis of TB was a slow death sentence. Cough, prolonged fevers, bloody sputum and wasting are the primary symptoms.

The literary and art worlds were affected equally with the general population. Chopin's demise was chronicled by George Sand. Frank McCourt deals with TB and how it effects the family in Angela's Ashes. Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain takes place in a TB Sanitorium during WWI in Switzerland. Chinese writings dating from 2700 B.C. describe lung fever and cough. Greek literature also contains numerous references to tuberculosis".


Also known as Eel thing, St. Anthony's Fire, or rose is a contagious skin disease, due to Streptococci. The disease is characterized by burning heat resulting from an acute inflammation of the skin. The strep bacterium is the cause of the disease. This is the same germ that is responsible for scarlet fever.

Erysipelas outbreaks occurred mainly during the winter months. March was the month wherein most cases occurred. Erysipelas began with a very high fever, chilling, and swelling of the face. During the late 1880's the standard treatment was to administer laxative "purges" and then to paint the patients face with iodine or silver nitrate. Erysipelas was generally not fatal, unless the person was weakened by other diseases.


Anasarca, ascites, water retention or eclampsia. Commonly known today as Congestive Heart Failure. The term generally referred to people who were swollen with water. They were prone to dropping things because the brain was also effected by the swelling causing neurological side effects.

Common folk medicine treated dropsy with foxglove leaves. Digitalis purpura or purple foxglove is found growing wild in the woods and is grown as an ornamental perennial in gardens. The plant is a herbaceous biennial (flowering every other year) and readily self sows. The leaves, flowers, and seeds of the plant are all toxic and may be fatal if ingested. This is the plant form of the drug digitalis or digitoxin. It's important to remember that during the late 1800s and the early 1900s most of the terms used in death records were generic. The terms encompassed several meaning and generally described symptomology rather than a precise disease state. What one person meant, wasn't necessarily what another meant. There were regional variations in terminology, much like soda - in the northeast - and pop - in the Midwest -both meaning soft drink.

Bright's Disease


Bright's Disease was a general term used to mean death caused by some form of kidney failure. It was a common term for kidney diseases that were defined by high concentrations of protein in the urine - uremia. The term is obsolete and no longer used.

Glomerulernephritis, Polycystic Kidney Disease and Chronic Renal Failure were some of the diseases labeled as Bright's disease by practitioners.

In the 1700s and 1800s, Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) was often given the label of Bright's Disease. PKD is a hereditary disease that is autosomal dominant. The gene is dominant, meaning that with each pregnancy there is a 50% chance of inheriting the disease. Glomerulonephritis, also called Protein Disease, is the term for the non-hereditary, serious kidney disease that was called Bright's Disease. This is an inflammation and swelling of the kidney's filtering system that was fatal in the early 1900s. This condition was often seen following infections of the respiratory tract by the strep germ. What we commonly now call strep throat. People died because there were no antibiotics to treat the strep infection and because there was no treatment for renal failure. Urine therapy was a common treatment for Bright's disease in the late 1800s. Many people drank their own urine to try and cure Bright's Disease. There is no significant data that suggests this was effective.

Drinking urine for therapeutic purposes.



This is a very general term meaning exhalations or emanations, applied especially to those of noxious or toxic character. In the mid-nineteenth century, they were called "vapours". Women especially died from the "vapours". This is to be distinguished from what is called the contagious effluvia, such as rubeolar (measles); marsh effluvia, such as miasmata (foul odors from the earth); and those arising from animals or vegetables.

Mania or Acute Mania

Any of the forms of mental illness, or dementia. May also mean, along with the term "vapors" that the individual died from acute alcohol ingestion, or the DTs. In the 1800s is was defined as severe insanity. Acute mania was used as a term for death when the patient had been hospitalized in a mental institution. It would be hard to say exactly what the mental illness was. Mental illness contains a cultural definition and what is mentally ill in one culture may not be in another.

Softening of the Brain


Cerebral infarction, dementia, Alzheimer's, Old Timer's Disease, cerebral hemorrhage, stroke.

This phrase was often used in conjunction with dementia or senility to indicate a disruption in the thinking processes or a deterioration in the nervous system. The dementia or senility may have had a number of causes, including cerebral infarction or stroke. Disease such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's may have also been labeled "softening of the brain".

Death from Teething

Before the discovery of antibiotics to treat infections and adequate dentistry people died from tooth infections.


Falling sickness, convulsions, fits or Jackson's March are the antiquated terms for Epilepsy in any of it's forms.

French Pox, German Pox, Spanish Pox

These were the terms used for the venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea. The term was most popular during WWI when soldiers returning from the front were thought to have brought home the disease with them.

The Gripp or Le Grippe

Essentially the flu or influenza. An example is the great Swine Flu epidemic of 1918. The flu is a respiratory disease that is highly contagious and spreads rapidly. So many people were affected during the Swine Flu Epidemic that whole families were often wiped out. This was due to the fact that there was no one to care for the ill. People dehydrated quickly and there was no effective means to rehydrate them.

Lock Jaw

This is the term used for tetanus on death certificates. Tetanus is an infection by the bacterium Clostridium tetani, a cousin of the bugs that cause gangrene and botulism.

The person initially experiences neck and jaw stiffness. The classic symptom of late stage tetanus is difficulty opening or closing the jaw, therefore the term lock jaw. The whole body may go into spasms.


General term for tonsillitis. Especially an advanced case that can be seen on the muscles of the neck near the jaw.

Scarlet Fever

This was a streptococcus bacteria infection that was a major cause of death in children before the 20th century. The disease was recognized by the skin rash and the very high fever it caused. Death from collapse of the circulatory system often occurred within 24 to 48 hours. Because it was a virulent infectious disease is was spread in bouts as epidemics.

Scrofula, King's Evil, Ships Fever

Tuberculosis of the lymph nodes of the neck.

Canine Madness

Essentially rabies caused by the bite of an animal.

Domestic Illness

Mental breakdown, depression, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, or the after effects of a stroke or any illness that kept a person housebound and in need of care and support.

Death certificates may also have other interesting clues for you. The person you are searching may have died in the pest house. This was an isolation or quarantine hospital for those with infectious or contagious epidemic diseases. But sure and check where the person died on the death certificate - another clue to the life your ancestor lived.

Donna Hoff-Grambau is co-webmaster of the Michigan Family History Network. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a concentration in American History. Her areas of research expertise include early American migration patterns, genealogical records, the Mid-Atlantic States, Sweden, Scotland, Ukraine and Southeastern Poland, and Northern Europe. Her passion is Michigan History and Genealogy.