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"
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
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
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 mouth.
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
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.
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
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.
Gangrene. Death and decay of tissue in a part of the body, usually a limb, due to injury, disease, or failure of blood supply. Synonym: mortification.
Gleet. See catarrh.
Gravel. A disease characterized
by multiple small calculi (stones or concretions
of mineral salts) which are formed in the kidneys, passed along
the ureters to the bladder, and expelled with the urine.
Synonym: kidney stone.
Hectic fever. A daily recurring fever with profound sweating, chills, and flushed appearance?? often associated with pulmonary tuberculosis or septic poisoning.
Hospital fever. See typhus.
Hydrocephalus. See dropsy.
Hydrothorax. See dropsy.
Icterus. See jaundice.
Inanition. Exhaustion from lack of nourishment; starvation. A condition characterized by marked weakness, extreme weight loss, and a decrease in metabolism resulting from severe and prolonged (usually weeks to months) insufficiency of food.
Infection. The affection or contamination of a person, organ, or wound with invading, multiplying, disease-producing germs; such as bacteria, rickettsiae, viruses, molds, yeasts, and protozoa. In the early part of the last century, infections were thought to be the propagation of disease by effluvia (see above) from patients crowded together. "Miasms" were believed to be substances which could not be seen in any form; emanations not apparent to the senses. Such miasms were understood to act by infection.
Inflammation. Redness, swelling,
pain, tenderness, heat, and disturbed function
of an area of the body, especially as a reaction of tissue to injurious
agents. This mechanism serves as a localized and protective
response to injury. The word ending -itis
denotes inflammation on the part indicated
by the word stem to which it is attached; that is, appendicitis,
pleuritis, etc. Microscopically, it involves a complex series
of events, including enlargement of the sizes of blood vessels;
discharge of fluids, including plasma proteins; and migration of
leukocytes (white blood cells) into the inflammatory
focus. In the last century, cause
of death often was listed as inflammation of a
body organ; such as, brain or lung, but this was purely a descriptive
term and is not helpful in identifying the actual
Jail fever. See typhus.
Jaundice. Yellow discoloration
of the skin, whites of the eyes, and mucous
membranes, due to an increase of bile pigments in the blood;
often symptomatic of certain diseases, such as hepatitis, obstruction
of the bile duct, or cancer of the liver. Synonym: icterus.
Kidney stone. See gravel.
Kings evil. A popular name for
scrofula. The name originated in the time
of Edward the Confessor, with the belief that the disease could
be cured by the touch of the king of England.
Lockjaw. Tetanus, a disease
in which the jaws become firmly locked together.
Synonyms: trismus, tetanus.
Malignant fever. See typhus.
Marasmus. Malnutrition occurring
in infants and young children, caused by
an insufficient intake of calories or protein and characterized by
thinness, dry skin, poor muscle development,
and irritability. In the mid-nineteenth
century, specific causes were associated with specific ages:
In infants under twelve months old, the causes were believed to
be unsuitable food, chronic vomiting, chronic
diarrhea, and inherited syphilis.
Between one and three years, marasmus was associated with rickets
or cancer. After the age of three years, caseous (cheeselike)
enlargement of the mesenteric glands (located
in the peritoneal fold
Meningitis. Inflammation of the meninges (the three membranes covering the brain and spinal cord), especially of the pia mater and arachnoid; caused by a bacterial or viral infection and characterized high fever, severe headache, and stiff neck or back muscles. Synonym: brain fever.
Morbus. Latin word for disease.
In the last century, when applied to a
particular disease, morbus was associated with some qualifying adjective
or noun, indicating the nature or seat of such disease. Examples:
morbus cordis, heart disease; morbus caducus, epilepsy or failing
Neuralgia. Sharp and paroxysmal
pain along the course of a sensory nerve.
There are many causes: anemia, diabetes, gout, malaria, syphilis.
Many varieties of neuralgia are distinguished according to the
part affected??such as face, arm, leg.
Paristhmitis. See quinsy.
Petechial fever. See typhus.
Phthisis. See consumption.
Pleurisy. Inflammation of the pleura, the membranous sac lining the chest cavity, with or without fluid collected in the pleural cavity. Symptoms are chills, fever, dry cough, and pain in the affected side (a stitch).
Pneumonia. Inflammation of the lungs with congestion or consolidation???caused by viruses, bacteria, or physical and chemical agents.
Pus. A yellow?white, more or less viscid substance found in abscesses and sores, consisting of a liquid plasma in which white blood cells are formed and suspended by the process of inflammation.
Putrid fever. See typhus.
Putrid sore throat. Ulceration of an acute form, attacking the tonsils and rapidly running into sloughing of the fauces (the cavity at the back of the mouth, leading to the pharynx).
Pyrexia. See dysentery.
Quinsy. A fever, or a febrile
condition. An acute inflammation of the tonsils,
often leading to an abscess; peritonsillar abscess.
Synonyms: suppurative tonsillitis, cynanche tonsillaris, paristhmitis,
Scarlatina. Scarlet fever. A contagious febrile disease, caused by infection with the bacteria group. A beta-hemolytic streptococci (which elaborate a toxin with an affinity for red blood cells) and characterized by a scarlet eruption, tonsillitis, and pharyngitis.
Scrofula. Primary tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands, especially those in the neck. A disease of children and young adults, it represents a direct extension of tuberculosis into the skin from underlying lymph nodes. It evolves into cold abscesses, multiple skin ulcers, and draining sinus tracts. Synonym: king's evil.
Septic. Infected, a condition of local or generalized invasion of the body by disease?causing microorganisms (germs) or their toxins.
Ship fever. See typhus.
Spotted fever. See typhus.
Suffocation. The stoppage of respiration. In the nineteenth century, suffocation was reported as being accidental or homicidal. The accidents could be by the impaction of pieces of food or other obstacles in the pharynx or by the entry of foreign bodies into the larynx (as a seed, coin, or food). Suffocation of newborn children by smothering under bedclothes may have happened from carelessness as well as from intent. However, the deaths also could have been due to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), wherein the sudden and unexpected death of an apparently healthy infant, while asleep, typically occurs between the ages of three weeks and five months and is not explained by careful postmortem studies. Synonyms of SIDS: crib death and cot death. It was felt that victims of homicidal suffocation were chiefly infants or feeble and infirm persons.
Summer complaint. See cholera infantum.
Suppuration. The production
Tabes mesenterica. Tuberculosis of the mesenteric glands in children, resulting in digestive derangement and wasting of the body.
Teething. The entire process which results in the eruption of the teeth. Nineteenth-century medical reports stated that infants were more prone to disease at the time of teething. Symptoms were restlessness, fretfulness, convulsions, diarrhea, and painful and swollen gums. The latter could be relieved by lancing over the protruding tooth. Often teething was reported as a cause of death in infants. Perhaps they became susceptible to infections, especially if lancing was performed without antisepsis. Another explanation of teething as a cause of death is that infants were often weaned at the time of teething; perhaps they then died from drinking contaminated milk, leading to an infection, or from malnutrition if watered-down milk was given.
Tetanus. An infectious, often?fatal disease caused by a specific bacterium, Clostridium tetani, that enters the body through wounds; characterized by respiratory paralysis and tonic spasms and rigidity of the voluntary muscles, especially those of the neck and lower jaw. Synonyms: trismus, lockjaw.
Thrush. A disease characterized by whitish spots and ulcers on the membranes of the mouth, tongue, and fauces caused by a parasitic fungus, Candida albicans. Thrush usually affects sick, weak infants and elderly individuals in poor health. Now it is a common complication from excessive use of broad-spectrum antibiotics or cortisone treatment. Synonyms: aphthae, sore mouth, aphthous stomatitis.
Trismus nascentium or neonatorum. A form of tetanus seen only in infants, almost invariably in the first five days of life, probably due to infection of the umbilical stump.
Typhoid fever. An infectious, often fatal, febrile disease, usually occurring in the summer months; characterized by intestinal inflammation and ulceration caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi, which is usually introduced by food or drink. Symptoms include prolonged hectic fever, malaise, transient characteristic skin rash (rose spots), abdominal pain, enlarged spleen, slowness of heart rate, delirium, and low white?blood cell count. The name came from the disease's similarity to typhus (see below). Synonym: enteric fever.
Typhus. An acute, infectious
disease caused by several micro-organism species
of Rickettsia (transmitted by lice and fleas) and characterized
by acute prostration, high fever, depression, delirium, headache,
and a peculiar eruption of reddish spots on the body. The
epidemic or classic form is louse borne; the
endemic or murine is flea borne.
Synonyms: typhus fever, malignant fever (in the 1850s), jail
fever, hospital fever, ship fever, putrid fever,
brain fever, bilious fever,
spotted fever, petechial fever, camp fever.
Virus. An ultramicroscopic,
metabolically inert infectious agent that replicates
only within the cells of living hosts, mainly bacteria, plants,
and animals. In the early 1800s virus meant poison, venom, or
Yellow fever. An acute, often?fatal,
infectious febrile disease of warm
climates; caused by a virus transmitted by mosquitoes, especially
Aledes aegypti, and characterized by liver damage and jaundice, fever,
and protein in the urine. In 1900 Walter Reed and others in Panama
found that mosquitoes transmit the disease.
Clinicians in. the late nineteenth century
recognized "specific yellow fever" as being different
from "malarious yellow fever." The latter supposedly was a
form of malaria with liver involvement but without
William Cullen, First
Lines of the Practice of Physic with Practical
and Explanatory Notes by John Rotheram (New
York: Evert Duyckinck, 1801); Robert Hooper, Lexicon?Medicum or Medical
Dictionary (New York: J. & J.
Harper, 1826); Marshall Hail, The Principles of Diagnosis (New York:
D. Appleton & Co., 1835); Robley Dunglison,
A Dictionary of Medical Science, Containing
a Concise Account of the Various Subjects and Terms (Philadelphia:
Lea and Blanchard, 1844); Richard D. Hoblyn, A Dictionary
of Terms Used in Medicine and the Collateral Sciences (Philadelphia:
Henry C. Lea, 1865); William Aitken, The Science and Practice
of Medicine, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston,
From the article "Disease and Death in the Nineteenth Century: A Genealogical Perspective", by James Byars Carter, M.D. Exerpted from a complete article on the subject from The National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 76, (Dec 1988) pp 289?301.
William Cullen, First
Lines of the Practice of Physic with Practical
and Explanatory Notes by John Rotheram (New
York: Evert Duyckinck, 1801 );
Robert Hooper, Lexicon?Medicum or Medical Dictionary (New York: J.
& J. Harper, 1826); Marshall Hail,
The Principles of Diagnosis (New York:
From the article "Disease
and Death in the Nineteenth Century: A Genealogical
Perspective", by James Byars Carter, M.D. Exerpted from a complete
article on the subject from The National Genealogical Society Quarterly,
Vol. 76, (Dec 1988) pp 289?301.
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