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How to Decipher Illness from the Past

  • Written by | 2 Comments2 Comments Comments
    Last Updated: January 19th, 2010

    When doing family history research illness and death play a large part in understanding what happened to ancestors. The illness that an ancestor may have had is not always clear. This is this is due to the fact that many illnesses either do not exist today or their names have been changed through the years. It is often important to know what an illness was in order to trace the family tree; especially if it was an illness that could be passed from generation to generation. One way to decipher the illness or disease is through research, there are books that explain what these diseases were and what they might be called today. They could also be diseases that no longer exist due to medical advances.

    These medical advances isolated some properties that caused the illness and then medications were made to treat them. However, for some illness such as pneumonia, it was not until the mid 1900’s that there was a treatment.

    There are many illnesses that were clear to understand because of the name, the name often had to do with the symptoms of the disease. Then there are others that were named after the doctor or scientist that discovered the disease. Some diseases had names that had seemingly nothing whatsoever to do with the disease such as Brill’s disease, which was actually typhus. Another of these is chincough, this is what today is known as whooping cough.

    There were also diseases known that had names which have long since been forgotten. One of one of the most familiar ones would be black death, which was used for bubonic plague.

    Visitation of God, on a death certificate in most cases meant the person was elderly and died of natural causes. Viper’s Dance is another name that would not be heard today, along with St. Vitus Dance, which either would mean the patient had chorea.

    To go along with the names both familiar and unfamiliar were the plagues that often killed hundreds in an area, and in some cases thousands. These plagues included yellow fever, smallpox, diphtheria, typhus, influenza, bubonic plague, whooping cough and measles. There were certain years in certain countries or states were the number of deaths made the disease a pandemic. Bubonic plague is one which struck the UK in 1630, 1631, 1636 and 1637 claiming large amounts of lives. Yellow fever struck the United States numerous times including 1647, 1668, 1690, 1699, 1706, 1732, 1741, and this lasted until 1743 in states such as New York.

    Researching the family tree, this is one place where it is important to ensure to check mortality records for the area when a family member has disappeared from the census reports. Prior to census reports other town or city documents that were kept can give clues as to deaths in the area. Disease and illnesses did not distinguish ages, as many babies and children died of disease, along with older members of the family. During times of pandemics an entire family could have been wiped out from the disease.

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  1. #1
    ireta gross
    March 3rd, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    i would like to know my family’s medical history

    Post ReplyPost Reply
  2. #2
    January 27th, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    i wish i knew my family medical history too

    Post ReplyPost Reply

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