Historic causes of death and modern equivalents

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Finding the historic obituary for your ancestor on Newspapers.com is like hitting the jackpot in genealogical research. Sometimes the cause of death is something we’ve never heard of. Here’s a list of historic causes of death and their modern equivalents.

1856 Ad For Medicine To Cure Ague
Ague: Malarial Fever

Apoplexy: Unconsciousness resulting from a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke

Brain Fever: Meningitis

Bright’s Disease: Kidney failure

Childbed: Fever due to an infection after childbirth

Consumption: Tuberculosis

Canine Madness: Rabies caused by the bite of an animal

Consumption Cure? 1904
Chin Cough: Whooping cough

Diphtheria: Contagious disease of the throat

Dyspepsia: Indigestion and heartburn

Dropsy: Edema caused by kidney or heart disease

Falling Sickness: Epilepsy

Inanition: Starvation

Lockjaw: Tetanus disease that affects muscles in the neck and jaw

Milk Leg: Painful swelling after giving birth caused by thrombophlebitis in the femoral vein

Mania: Dementia

Memorial to 6000 Irish Immigrants Who Died From Ship Fever 1847-48
Mania-a-potu: A mental disorder caused by alcoholism

Quinsy: Tonsillitis

Ship Fever: Typhus

Spotted Fever: Meningitis or Typhus

Search our archives today to find the obituary for your ancestor!

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66 thoughts on “Historic causes of death and modern equivalents

  1. Death due to “general paresis of the insane” (syphilis) was another you don’t see anymore. It wasn’t treated very successfully before about the WW1 time frame. I went through the 100 plus year old archives of the Danvers State Hospital some time ago and found many middle aged widows dying of this.

    • Can you tell me more about your research on the archives from Danvers? Are you going to publish anything about them? I’m working on a book about cases from the Delaware State (Mental) Hospital, 1894-1920. Would like to chat. xro2581 at gmail dot com.

  2. I will bookmark this page to refer to in the future because it’s very helpful. Over the years I had figured out what some of those archaic medical terms meant but not all, so thanks very much for this information.

  3. Quinsy is still used but reflects an infection which has spread out of the tonsil and has caused an abscess which is potentially life-threatening. There was a thought that George Washington may have died from this (or the treatment of it)

    • The “new” term (from 1972) is Paratonsilitic Abcess. It killed Chief Osceola who was held at Fort Moultrie in or near Charleston, SC. He refused “the white man’s medicine. Today, a good shot of penicillin and a tonsillectomy will cure the problem.

  4. When I was entering journalism in the 1980s, death after a “long illness” still signified cancer. “Died suddenly at home” could mean suicide. Thank you for this list. I recently happened to find a great-grandfather who died of Bright’s disease and had to look it up. This is nice to have for future reference.

  5. In reviewing a number of death certificates now on the Ancestry database there are a number of diagnoses around 1930 or before that are no longer used. “Chronic myocarditis” nowadays would be a very uncommon inflammatory disorder of cardiac muscle; back then it is likely the term for what we now know as coronary heart disease, or perhaps ischemic cardiomyopathy. Likewise another common term was “chronic interstitial nephritis,” which likely now would be called chonic kidney disease due to hypertension and/or diabetes. Actual chronic interstitial nephritis would take a kidney biopsy to verify; likely in the past it meant they found protein in the urine. One category I have found likely reliable by today’s standards is valvular heart disease because physicians a hundred years ago did have skill with the stethescope.

    • Thank you, doctor!
      Long before I was born, my grandfather died in 1932 under odd circumstances. He had been called to the police station to identify suspects who had robbed him several weeks before. (A very stressful situation, I imagine.) According to a newspaper story, when they brought the robbers in, my grandfather stood up, asked for a glass of water, then collapsed. He died on the way to the hospital. His death certificate lists the cause as “chronic myocarditis.” It also states that no autopsy was performed. I looked up the modern definition, thought it seemed odd, and wondered how they could make that determination in 1932 without an autopsy.

      • Sorry to learn about this even though it was 85 years ago. We would put that in the category of sudden death, knowing that the most probable cause would be a fatal cardiac rhythm disturbance. It is probable, although not guaranteed, that a postmortem at the time would only show the underlying coronary artery disease. (Of course, medical people could theorize about other problems such as severe aortic valve narrowing, dissecting aneurysm, etc. etc. ). “Chronic myocarditis” in that situation was just stereotyped jargon.

      • Hey Don, Just a thought, I wonder if the chronic myocarditis diagnosis may have been made because he had previously been under the care of a doctor?

  6. Seems more likely that spotted fever is Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a rickettsial disease transmitted by tick bites. It was particularly common in Western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. The National Institutes of Health research lab that studies this type of disease (along with ebola, etc.) is now located in Hamilton, MT.

  7. RMSF does occur in Montana and other western states, but actually is more prevalent in mid-south and southern states.

  8. Agree. Sometimes the term “bloody flux” was used. It is sometimes startling for we in hygienic 21st Century America to realize how common intestinal diseases were up to the early 20th Century when sanitation infrastructure (sewers, pure water, etc.) began to be common. As I review my own genealogy, my forebears often either succumbed to tuberculosis or to typhoid, the later related to contaminated water.

  9. Would Dropsy be like drowning internally? One of my relatives, they said had dropsy, asthma, was over weight and they described his death as drowning internally.

    • Dropsy was a vernacular version of hydrops, meaning generalized edema, causing fluid swelling that usually settled in dependent areas of the body; as it worsened, first the feet and legs, then the abdomen and trunk; also the face and hands would show it in advanced cases. Internally fluid collects in the abdomen and in the chest cavity as well as lung spaces. The most common cause is congestive heart failure but it is also seen in advanced cirrhosis of the liver and chronic kidney failure. Nowadays we don’t see much of this because of potent diuretics, cardiac support measures, salt restriction, etc. The extreme situation is known as anasarca. “Drowning internally” is not a bad description.

  10. I’m attempting to do some ‘forensic geneaology’ by searching for evidence of the polycystic kidney disease in my husband’s antecedents by reviewing the stated causes of death — while aneurysm and stroke are common, would a common diagnosis have been wasting illness?

    • Patients with polycystic renal disease have an increased incidence of aneurysms in the brain which may be unrecognized as stroke.

  11. My father’s brother died at age 2 from “summer complaint” which I think was uncontrollable diarrhea. His mother thought it was caused by eating unpeeled peaches. This was in 1906.

  12. I’ve just Google Searched referencing dates to find equivalents. This way I can also get medical information on possible cause, etc.

  13. The great Seminole Osceola reportedly died of Quinsy on 30 January 1838. George Catlin painted a fascinatingly detailed portrait of him just before he died in prison at Ft Moultrie, South Carolina.

  14. Chronic myocarditis is still used as a diagnosis, usually from an autopsy, and >35 years ago probably exclusively from an autopsy. An inflammatory infiltrate of the myocardium can be fatal and have nothing to do with CAD. Formerly it was a relatively common complication of some viral infections (Adenovirus in particular); strep infections, as well as a complication seen in disseminated tuberculosis (sometimes seen in children and debilitated people 70 – 100+ years ago). In 1930, if an autopsy was performed, “chronic myocarditis” could mean carditis, or could’ve meant ischemic cardiomyopathy, a result of chronic long term starvation of the heart for blood (such as in evolving CAD).

  15. St. Vitus Dance is an antique term for what is now called Sydenham’s Chorea. Chorea is a general term for writhing, twitching, uncoordinated movements of the limbs and other muscular body areas. Sydenham’s is the form of chorea that is associated with some streptococcal infections, often along with acute rheumatic fever. The infection induces an immune reaction that damages a part of the deep brain centers that coordinate movement. There is a fairly good discussion of the details in Wikipedia, “Sydenham’s Chorea.”

  16. Does anyone have a guess as to what “Shock due to unknown causes” would be? Mid-1940s. This is my great grandmother who had been hospitalized for 2 weeks prior to death for a manic depressive episode in a manic state. I keep suspecting it was a way to cover up some sort of shock therapy gone wrong (lithium wasn’t used for a few more years.) I know I could be totally off, though.

  17. While researching coroner’s reports to understand my great great grandfather’s death in 1876 that listed only as “killed by cars”, I found others in the same folder that listed an unusual cause of death. The official cause of death was ” died by the visitation of God, in a natural way.” That we can assume to be death by natural causes.

  18. I saw one where an ancestor died of ‘calculus’ which is a pretty extreme reaction to an aversion to advanced math. Actually it was renal calculus which means kidney stone. Apparently kidney stones killed people before imaging and sterile surgery.

    • Sharon, sometimes I just can’t find the obituary I’m looking for. Maybe it wasn’t published or the town where my ancestor lived has newspapers that are not digitized. Some ideas for trying: 1-check surrounding towns and cities 2-try searching with just the last name 3-if it’s a woman, sometimes the obit is under her husband’s name, like Mrs. John Smith 4-look for obits of siblings, parents and other family members 5-often initials are used like H.B. Smith (instead of Hugh Bradley Smith) 5- expand your dates, maybe the obit is not published for a week after death. Hope that helps. Maybe someone else has more ideas.

      • I sympathize with the problem. The issue is that constructing obituaries, unlike death certificates, are an unofficial function left up to relatives, local newspapers, and other casual services. The collection of obituaries is also often left to on-line fee-based services, local libraries, FindAGrave, etc. It would be nice if a more formalized and reliable service could be organized.

  19. Although somewhat less common nowadays than it was a generation ago, “organic brain disease” has been a common, if nonspecific, label for evidence of brain dysfunction due to brain tissue changes or damage. It was used to differentiate a case from that of purely psychologic, or functional, origin, but when the exact neurologic cause was unknown. The ability to make specific diagnoses in more recent times has decreased the need for that term.

  20. Addendum: The cases wouldn’t all be Alzheimers; they could be traumatic encephalopathy, one of the other dementias such as Lewy Body, Frontotemporal, prion disease, neurosyphilis, and on and on.

  21. Thank you for the additional information. I actually found this to be listed as the cause of death of my second great grandmother and of course it leads me to wonder if her condition could be passed on through genetics. I had never heard that term prior to reading it on her death certificate.


  22. I have been combining my hobby of geneology research with present knowledge of a couple of familial medical problems in my and my husband’s family to identify and track the patterns . This is of value to help determine and alert other particular family members who are at risk. (I’m a physician but anyone can do this with a basic understanding of genetic inheritance .) Would highly recommend everyone make a point it finding death records and record the illnesses , along with dates and relations . It’s a gold mine and goes beyond interest to potentially improving the health of living family members .

  23. In the case of a deceased infants, several times I found inanition as the cause. It means starvation. Probably due to lack of mother’s milk.

  24. My daughter died in 1999 from what was listed simply in the autopsy as a congenital defect. There was a hole in the petrous (thick) bone of the middle ear. She was 34 years old. No cause was given. Any thoughts?

  25. Two comments.
    My favorite cause of death is ‘spontaneous combustion.’

    At a workshop on reading death certificates for research we were told that ‘heart failure’ is a sort of catch-all term when they don’t know. This would refer to say the 1950s or 60s forward.

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