Disease Names of Our Ancestors

  • Ablepsy – Blindness
  • Ague – Malarial Fever
  • American plague – Yellow fever
  • Anasarca – Generalized massive edema
  • Aphonia – Laryngitis
  • Aphtha – The infant disease “thrush”
  • Apoplexy – Paralysis due to stroke
  • Asphycsia/Asphicsia – Cyanotic and lack of oxygen
  • Atrophy – Wasting away or diminishing in size.
  • Bad Blood – Syphilis
  • Bilious fever – Typhoid, malaria, hepatitis, or elevated temperature and bile emesis (emesis = the act or process of vomiting)
  • Biliousness – Jaundice associated with liver disease
  • Black plague or death – Bubonic plague
  • Black fever – Acute infection with high temperature and dark red skin lesions and high mortality rate
  • Black pox – Black Small pox
  • Black vomit – Vomiting old black blood due to ulcers or yellow fever
  • Blackwater fever – Dark urine associated with high temperature
  • Bladder in throat – Diphtheria (Seen on death certificates)
  • Blood poisoning – Bacterial infection; septicemia
  • Bloody flux – Bloody stools
  • Bloody sweat – Sweating sickness
  • Bone shave – Sciatica
  • Brain fever – Meningitis
  • Breakbone – Dengue fever
  • Bright’s disease – Chronic inflammatory disease of kidneys
  • Bronze John – Yellow fever
  • Bule – Boil, tumor, or swelling
  • Cachexy – Malnutrition
  • Cacogastric – Upset stomach
  • Cacospysy – Irregular pulse
  • Caduceus – Subject to falling sickness or epilepsy
  • Camp fever – Typhus; aka Camp diarrhea
  • Canine madness – Rabies, hydrophobia
  • Canker – Ulceration of mouth or lips or herpes simplex
  • Catalepsy – Seizures / trances
  • Catarrhal – Nose and throat discharge from cold or allergy
  • Cerebritis – Inflammation of cerebrum or lead poisoning
  • Chilblain – Swelling of extremities caused by exposure to cold
  • Child bed fever – Infection following birth of a child
  • Chin cough – Whooping cough
  • Chlorosis – Iron deficiency anemia
  • Cholera – Acute severe contagious diarrhea with intestinal lining sloughing
  • Cholera morbus – Characterized by nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, elevated temperature, etc. Could be appendicitis
  • Cholecystitus – Inflammation of the gall bladder
  • Cholelithiasis – Gall stones
  • Chorea – Disease characterized by convulsions, contortions, and dancing
  • Cold plague – Characterized by chills
  • Colic – An abdominal pain and cramping
  • Congestive chills – Malaria
  • Consumption – Tuberculosis
  • Congestion – Any collection of fluid in an organ, like the lungs
  • Congestive chills – Malaria with diarrhea
  • Congestive fever – Malaria
  • Corruption – Infection
  • Coryza – A cold
  • Costiveness – Constipation
  • Cramp colic – Appendicitis
  • Crop sickness – Overextended stomach
  • Croup – Laryngitis, diphtheria, or strep throat
  • Cyanosis – Dark skin color from lack of oxygen in blood
  • Cynanche – Diseases of throat
  • Cystitis – Inflammation of the bladder
  • Day fever – Fever lasting one day; sweating sickness
  • Debility – Lack of movement or staying in bed
  • Decrepitude – Feebleness due to old age
  • Delirium tremens – Hallucinations due to alcoholism
  • Dengue – Infectious fever endemic to East Africa
  • Dentition – Cutting of teeth
  • Deplumation – Tumor of the eyelids which causes hair loss
  • Diary fever – A fever that lasts one day
  • Diptheria – Contagious disease of the throat
  • Distemper – Usually animal disease with malaise, discharge from nose and throat, anorexia
  • Dock fever – Yellow fever
  • Dropsy – Edema (swelling), often caused by kidney or heart disease
  • Dropsy of the Brain – Encephalitis
  • Dry Bellyache – Lead poisoning
  • Dyscrasy – An abnormal body condition
  • Dysentery – Inflammation of colon with frequent passage of mucous and blood
  • Dysorexy – Reduced appetite
  • Dyspepsia – Indigestion and heartburn. Heart attack symptoms
  • Dysury – Difficulty in urination
  • Eclampsy – Symptoms of epilepsy, convulsions during labor
  • Ecstasy – A form of catalepsy characterized by loss of reason
  • Edema – Nephrosis; swelling of tissues
  • Edema of lungs – Congestive heart failure, a form of dropsy
  • Eel thing – Erysipelas (an acute streptococcus bacterial infection of the dermis)
  • Elephantiasis – A form of leprosy
  • Encephalitis – Swelling of brain; aka sleeping sickness
  • Enteric fever – Typhoid fever
  • Enterocolitis – Inflammation of the intestines
  • Enteritis – Inflations of the bowels
  • Epitaxis – Nose bleed
  • Erysipelas – Contagious skin disease, due to Streptococci with vesicular and bulbous lesions
  • Extravasted blood – Rupture of a blood vessel
  • Falling sickness – Epilepsy
  • Fatty Liver – Cirrhosis of liver
  • Fits – Sudden attack or seizure of muscle activity
  • Flux – An excessive flow or discharge of fluid like hemorrhage or diarrhea
  • Flux of humour – Circulation

Many death certificates I’ve encountered (and most when I first started my genealogy research) has a cause of death that is usually foreign to me.  It doesn’t help matters that, in many instances, the causes of death were spelled phonetically either! One trick I learned soon after seriously diving into genealogy is that having a page bookmarked with “old-time diseases” was very helpful.  Nine times out of ten, you will receive a death certificate with an unfamiliar disease listed as the cause of death. However, I have come across one death certificate where no additional resource was necessary. Notice the contributory cause of death of Mr. M.G. Jones who passed away in Highland, Erath, Texas, on 8 September 1911:

Death Certificate for Mason Grigsby Jones (click on image to enlarge).

The immediate cause of death is organic heart lesion.  This is not too far-fetched.  He most likely died of heart issues, maybe what we know commonly as a heart attack. But look at the line just below, the contributory cause of death:  over work! It’s amazing that a coroner would actually record “over work” as a contributory cause of death. Yet, I seriously wonder how many of our ancestors would qualify for the same contributory cause of death.  Life certainly wasn’t easy one hundred years ago. Mr. Jones’s “over work” cause of death is something to consider as genealogists.

I believe we need to remember the ancestors we research were people, too. Yes, they died from diseases we have to learn and most of which are preventable today. And, yes, we are thrilled when we actually can find a cause of death. Nevertheless, I suggest – as we are storytellers – must try to keep in mind our ancestors were also someone’s husband, brother, son, mother, or daughter.

Of course, when I find a death certificate, I am extremely excited.  But, when I receive that death certificate, I do take time to honor the ancestor for a moment as well. It doesn’t take long, just a minute or two.  Just enough time to acknowledge his or her life.  I kind of just sit with it for a couple of deep breaths.


Published on May 21, 2014 at 1:17 am  Leave a Comment  

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