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Medical Terminology, Then and Now



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Compiled by Penny Papenfus                                              


Sources: includes Tabors Medical Dictionary, Edition 12, 1973; personal knowledge as RN for over 30years.





Medical terms can be confusing at times.  As medical knowledge increases, new terms are used that better explain a certain disease than previous terminology did.  My parents used a lot of the old terminology when I was growing up, and being an “old school” nurse as my students liked to describe me [ha!], I wanted to put together a small list to help everyone better understand what the cause of death that is listed on our ancestors death certificate might mean in today’s terms.  Email me if you would like a disease added to the list.


Then                                                                            Now


Apoplexy                                                                    stroke


Bad blood                                                                   syphilis


Blood poisoning                                                          septicemia which is a life threatening bacterial infection which spreads through the body via the blood


Brain fever                                                                  Meningitis


Bright’s Disease                                                          a vague term for acute and chronic disease of the kidneys. It is usually associated with dropsy.  Nephritis.


Catarrh                                                                        inflammation of mucous membranes and usually accompanies Emphysema, Bronchitis, Pneumonia, or dilation of right heart ventricle.


Child bed fever                                                           Sepsis occurring during or after childbirth.  Remember, women were on bedrest for 2weeks after having a baby even up until the mid 1950’s.  And in the early years, sterile environments at home just weren’t thought of.


Consumption                                                               Pulmonary Tuberculosis


Dilation of the heart                                                    I think this term more likely conveys what we think of today as Congestive Heart Failure. See Dropsy below.


Dropsy                                                                        Morbid [life threatening] condition that causes accumulation of fluid and edema in tissues and body cavities due to Heart Disease, Kidney disease, or Cirrhosis.  The treatment back then was to tap and drain the fluid from these pocket.  My Dad knew lots of people who had Dropsy.  He always said that they could drain you twice but the third time always killed you. As a Nurse, I know that it wasn’t the procedure that killed them, it was the severity of their condition by the time the 3rd Tap was done.  Many people just want to say this was just Congestive Heart Failure, but it really was different.


Erysipelas                                                                    Acute febrile [fever] disease with localized inflammation and swelling of skin and subcutaneous [layer under the skin] tissue leading to systemic [whole body] symptoms like Septicemia and kidney disease if untreated.


Fatty liver                                                                    Cirrhosis


Inanition                                                                      Malnutrition due to lack of sufficient foods essential to the body


La Grippe                                                                    Influenza  [remember the flu epidemic that killed thousands of people in 1918.  My dad was 4. He and his parents had it.  They were very sick but survived. He lived in Union C TN.  Neighbors brought them food and left it on the porch.  He felt the best and it was his job to crawl to the door and bring it in.]


Jail Fever                                                                     Typhus Fever, often developing in places where living conditions are unfavorable, like ships, army camps and jailhouses


Lock jaw                                                                     tetanus


Marasmus                                                                    Emaciation or wasting away due to acute diseases present. Common in infants up to 18 months of age.


Phrenitis                                                                      Acute Delirium frenzy.  Encephalitis


Plague                                                                         once used to describe any widespread contagious disease associated with a high death rate. There are several forms of plague today: Bubonic, Black [epidemic in Europe in 14th century], pneumonic, septicemic.


Pott’s Disease                                                             Tuberculosis of the spine, especially found in children and adult through age 40


Purpural Fever/ Blood Fever                                       I’ve seen it spelled several ways. It means Septicemia or Fever with skin hemorrhages


Quinsy                                                                         Peritonsilar abscess due to bacterial inflammation of the tonsil area that can rupture spontaneously


Scrofula                                                                       Tuberculosis adenitis involving the cervical lymph nodes of neck spread from a pulmonary TB lesion.


Softening of Brain                                                      I’m pretty sure this was the term used for Senile Dementia, or possibly even for Alzheimer’s Disease.