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From: Michael O RECK <>
Subject: "Old Diseases" Part 1 (revised list)
Date: Sat, 1 Apr 2000 07:45:00 -0500

To All:

I finally found my copy of "Old Diseases". I will break this down in
several messages. I found this years ago, and thought this was very
helpful when I was collecting information on death certificates.

From: Derick Hartshorn Date: 09 Oct 95 12:46:48
To: All Msg#: 576
Subj.: old diseases revisited 01
Area: Nat'l Genealogy Conf.

This article, from the NGSQ, should provide the final word on the
matter of "old diseases" that has been the subject of many posts here.


Most of the definitions of diagnoses in the glossary that follows are
from medical dictionaries or medical texts compiled at different points
in the nineteenth century. [see NOTES AND REFERENCES at end of
article]. To determine which medical terms should be defined, the
author has surveyed various mortality schedules, death certificates, and
other medical sources of the nineteenth century. While he has tried to
submit the best?possible interpretation of these terms, there are
certainly other interpretations which may be valid.


Abscess. A localized collection of pus buried in tissues, organs, or
confined spaces of the body, often accompanied by swelling and
inflammation and frequently caused by bacteria. The brain, lung, or
kidney (for instance) could be involved. See boil.

Addison's disease. A disease characterized by severe weakness, low
blood pressure, and a bronzed coloration of the skin, due to decreased
secretion of cortisol from the adrenal gland. Dr. Thomas Addison
(1793?1860), born near Newcastle, England, described the disease in
1855. Synonyms: Morbus addisonii, bronzed skin disease.

Ague. Malarial or intermittent fever characterized by paroxysms (stages
of chills, fever, and sweating at regularly recurring times) and
followed by an interval or intermission whose length determines the
epithets: quotidian, tertian, quartan, and quintan ague (defined in
the text). Popularly, the disease was known as "fever and ague,"
"chill fever," "the shakes," and by names expressive of the locality
in which it was prevalent??such as, "swamp fever" (in Louisiana),
"Panama fever," and "Chagres fever."

Ague?cake. A form of enlargement of the spleen, resulting from the
action of malaria on the system.

Anasarca. Generalized massive dropsy. See dropsy.

Aphthae. See thrush.

Aphthous stomatitis. See canker.

Ascites. See dropsy.

Asthenia. See debility.

Bilious fever. A term loosely applied to certain enteric (intestinal)
and malarial fevers. See typhus.

Biliousness. A complex of symptoms comprising nausea, abdominal
discomfort, headache, and constipation??formerly attributed to
excessive secretion of bile from the liver.

Boil. An abscess of skin or painful, circumscribed inflammation of the
skin or a hair follicle, having a dead, pus?forming inner core,
usually caused by a staphylococcal infection. Synonym: furuncle.

Brain fever. See meningitis, typhus.

Bronchial asthma. A paroxysmal, often allergic disorder of breathing,
characterized by spasm of the bronchial tubes of the lungs, wheezing,
and difficulty in breathing air outward??often accompanied by coughing
and a feeling of tightness in the chest. In the nineteenth century
the direct causes were thought to be dust, vegetable irritants,
chemical vapors, animal emanations, climatic influences, and bronchial
inflammation??all of which were reasonable guesses. The indirect
causes were thought to be transmissions by the nervous system or by
the blood from gout, syphilis, skin disease, renal disease, or
heredity. Only the latter cause was a reasonable assumption.

Camp fever. See typhus.

Cancer. A malignant and invasive growth or tumor (especially tissue
that covers a surface or lines a cavity), tending to recur after
excision and to spread to other sites. In the nineteenth century,
physicians noted that cancerous tumors tended to ulcerate, grew
constantly, and progressed to a fatal end and that there was scarcely
a tissue they would not invade. Synonyms: malignant growth,

Cancrum otis. A severe, destructive, eroding ulcer of the cheek and
lip, rapidly proceeding to sloughing. In the last century it was seen
in delicate, ill?fed, ill?tended children between the ages of two and
five. The disease was the result of poor hygiene acting upon a
debilitated system. It commonly followed one of the eruptive fevers
and was often fatal. The destructive disease could, in a few days,
lead to gangrene of the lips, cheeks, tonsils, palate, tongue, and
even half the face; teeth would fall from their sockets, and a
horribly fetid saliva flowed from the parts. Synonyms: canker, water
canker, noma, gangrenous stomatitis, gangrenous ulceration of the

Canker. An ulcerous sore of the mouth and lips, not considered fatal
today. Synonym: aphthous stomatitis. See cancrum otis.

Carcinoma. See cancer.

Catarrh. Inflammation of a mucous membrane, especially of the air
passages of the head and throat, with a free discharge. It is
characterized by cough, thirst, lassitude, fever, watery eyes, and
increased secretions of mucus from the air passages. Bronchial
catarrh was bronchitis; suffocative catarrh was croup; urethral
catarrh was gleet; vaginal catarrh was leukorrhea; epidemic catarrh
was the same as influenza. Synonyms: cold, coryza.

Childbirth. A cause given for many female deaths of the century.
Almost all babies were born in homes and usually were delivered by a
family member or a midwife; thus infection and lack of medical skill
were often the actual causes of death.

Cholera. An acute, infectious disease, endemic in India and China and
now occasionally epidemic elsewhere??characterized by profuse
diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. It is caused by a potent toxin
discharged by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which acts on the small
intestine to cause secretion of large amounts of fluid. The painless,
watery diarrhea and the passing of rice?water stool are
characteristic. Great body?salt depletion occurs. Cholera is spread
by feces?contaminated water and food. Major epidemics struck the
United States in the years 1832, 1849, and 1866. In the 1830s the
causes were generally thought to be intemperance in the use of ardent
spirits or drinking bad water; uncleanness, poor living or crowded
and ill?ventilated dwellings; and too much fatigue. By 1850 cholera
was thought to be caused by putrid animal poison and miasma or
pestilential vapor rising from swamps and marshes??or that it entered
the body through the lungs or was transmitted through the medium of
clothing. It was still believed that it attacked the poor, the
dissolute, the diseased, and the fearful?? while the healthy,
well?clad, well?fed, and fearless man escaped the ravages of cholera.

Cholera infantum. A common, noncontagious diarrhea of young children,
occurring in summer or autumn. In the nineteenth century it was
considered indigenous to the United States; was prevalent during the
hot weather in most of the towns of the middle and southern states, as
well as many western areas; and was characterized by gastric pain,
vomiting, purgation, fever, and prostration. It was common among the
poor and in hand?fed babies. Death frequently occurred in three to
five days. Synonyms: summer complaint, weaning brash, water gripes,
choleric fever of children, cholera morbus.

Chorea. Any of several diseases of the nervous system, characterized by
jerky movements that appear to be well coordinated but are performed
involuntarily, chiefly of the face and extremities. Synonym: Saint
Vitus' dance.

Chronic. Persisting over a long period of time as opposed to acute or
sudden. This word was often the only one entered under "cause of
death" in the mortality schedules. The actual disease meant by the
term is open to speculation.

Colic. Paroxysmal pain in the abdomen or bowels. Infantile colic is
benign paroxysmal abdominal pain during the first three months of
life. Colic rarely caused death; but in the last century a study
reported that in cases of death, intussusception (the prolapse of one
part of the intestine into the lumen of an immediately adjoining part)
occasionally occurred. Renal colic can occur from disease in the
kidney, gallstone colic from a stone in the bile duct.

Congestion. An excessive or abnormal accumulation of blood or other
fluid in a body part or blood vessel. In congestive fever (see text),
the internal organs become gorged with blood.

Consumption. A wasting away of the body; formerly applied especially to
pulmonary tuberculosis. The disorder is now known to be an infectious
disease caused by the bacterial species Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
Synonyms: marasmus (in the mid?nineteenth century), phthisis.

Convulsions. Severe contortion of the body caused by violent,
involuntary muscular contractions of the extremities, trunk, and head.
See epilepsy.

Coryza. See catarrh.

Croup. Any obstructive condition of the larynx (voice box) or trachea
(windpipe), characterized by a hoarse, barking cough and difficult
breathing occurring chiefly in infants and children. The obstruction
could be caused by allergy, a foreign body, infection, or new growth
(tumor). In the early?nineteenth century it was called cynanche
trachealis. The crouping noise was similar to the sound emitted by a
chicken affected with the pip, which in some parts of Scotland was
called roup; hence, probably, the term croup. Synonyms: roup, hives,
choak, stuffing, rising of the lights.

Debility. Abnormal bodily weakness or feebleness; decay of strength.
This was a term descriptive of a patient's condition and of no help in
making a diagnosis. Synonym: asthenia.

Diphtheria. An acute infectious disease caused by toxigenic strains of
the bacillus Corynebacterium diphtheriae, acquired by contact with
an infected person or a carrier of the disease. It was usually
confined to the upper respiratory tract (throat) and characterized by
the formation of a tough membrane (false membrane) attached firmly to
the underlying tissue that would bleed if forcibly removed. In the
nineteenth century the disease was occasionally confused with scarlet
fever and croup.

Dropsy. A contraction for hydropsy. Edema, the presence of abnormally
large amounts of fluid in intercellular tissue spaces or body
cavities. Abdominal dropsy is ascites; brain dropsy is hydrocephalus;
and chest dropsy is hydrothorax. Cardiac dropsy is a symptom of
disease of the heart and arises from obstruction to the current of
blood through the heart, lungs, or liver. Anasarca is general fluid
accumulation throughout the body.

Dysentery. A term given to a number of disorders marked by inflammation
of the intestines (especially of the colon) and attended by pain in
the abdomen, by tenesmus (straining to defecate without the ability to
do so), and by frequent stools containing blood and mucus. The
causative agent may be chemical irritants, bacteria, protozoa, or
parasitic worms. There are two specific varieties: (1) amebic
dysentery caused by the protozoan Entamoeba histolytica; (2) bacillary
dysentery caused by bacteria of the genus Shigella. Dysentery was one
of the most severe scourges of armies in the nineteenth century. The
several forms of dysentery and diarrhea accounted for more than
one?fourth of all the cases of disease reported during the first two
years of the Civil War. Synonyms: flux, bloody flux, contagious
pyrexia (fever), frequent griping stools.

Eclampsia. A form of toxemia (toxins??or poisons??in the blood)
accompanying pregnancy, characterized by albuminuria (protein in the
urine), by hypertension (high blood pressure), and by convulsions. In
the last century, the term was used for any form of convulsion.
Edema. See dropsy.

Effluvia. Exhalations or emanations, applied especially to those of
noxious character. In the mid?nineteenth century, they were called
"vapours" and distinguished into the contagious effluvia, such as
rubeolar (measles); marsh effluvia, such as miasmata; and those
arising from animals or vegetables, such as odors.

Emphysema, pulmonary. A chronic, irreversible disease of the lungs,
characterized by abnormal enlargement of air spaces in the lungs and
accompanied by destruction of the tissue lining the walls of the air
sacs. By 1900 the condition was recognized as a chronic disease of
the lungs associated with marked dyspnea (shortness of breath),
hacking cough, defective aeration (oxygenation) of the blood, cyanosis
(blue color of facial skin), and a full and rounded or "barrel?shaped"
chest. This disease is now most commonly associated with tobacco

Enteric fever. See typhoid fever.

Epilepsy. A disorder of the nervous system, characterized either by
mild, episodic loss of attention or sleepiness (petittnal) or by
severe convulsions with loss of consciousness (grand mal). Synonyms:
falling sickness, fits.

Erysipelas. An acute, febrile, infectious disease, caused by a specific
group ~4 streptococcus bacterium and characterized by a diffusely
spreading, deep?red inflammation of the skin or mucous membranes
causing a rash with a well?defined margin. Synonyms: Rose, Saint
Anthony's Fire (from its burning heat or, perhaps, because Saint
Anthony was supposed to cure it miraculously).

Flux. See dysentery.

(continued in next message)

Michael O. Reck
E-mail: -OR-


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