The Cause of Death Was . . . by George G. Morgan

celtic tombstone.jpgI saw a news story recently about medical studies verifying that coronary disease is hereditary. Now, you may not think that this is earth-shattering news, but Intermountain Healthcare’s LDS Hospital has begun a remarkable study. On 9 May 2007, it launched the Intermountain Genealogical Registry, a lineage-based population database containing the pedigrees of more than 10 million individuals–the largest in the United States–who have lived or whose descendants have lived in the intermountain region of the United States. The purpose of this groundbreaking new database is to enhance the discovery of genetic factors that contribute to cardiovascular diseases through the study of a large population of patients in which cardiovascular diseases appear to cluster in certain families.

Meanwhile, the Genome Project continues to identify specific genes that cause or contribute to physical attributes in families and individuals, including a predisposition to develop particular medical conditions. If you are considering having your DNA tested, it is possible that the results will connect you to other persons to whom you are genetically related. As a result, you may also begin studying death certificates and causes of death much more carefully–not just casually or academically, but for clues to possible susceptibilities that you, yourself, and your descendants may have.

Understanding Causes of Death
Over the past decade, I have spent much more time scrutinizing the causes of death of my direct ancestors and their family members. Part of that work has involved obtaining death certificates for absolutely all of my direct ancestors, their siblings, and all first cousins regardless of how far removed they are. Where death certificates were not available or not yet issued, I have extended my research to other resources.

First, for those census years in which there were mortality schedules used, I have actively sought out family members who died in the twelve months prior to census day on these schedules. Their cause of death and duration of the final illness are included there and that can provide good information.

Next, I have pursued either visiting or writing to cemetery offices and requesting information from their interment ledgers/books. The interment books typically contain the date of interment (not death), the name of the individual, the gender and age, sometimes the address, and always the cause of death and the duration of the final illness. This little-used historical and genealogical resource can be invaluable! (I’ve even seen entries for U.S. Civil War casualties that listed the date of death, the place at which the person died, and the exact cause of death. A bullet through the chest, perforating the lung; killed in fall from horse; dysentery; smallpox; and many other exact causes of death for soldiers are listed that may not appear in the individual’s military service records.)

I also look to family Bibles, letters, journals, and diaries for information about a cause of death. My Grandmother Morgan was married and widowed before she met and married my grandfather. She married Jeter Earnest Murphy in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on 2 Feb 1898 and the entry in her personal Bible was one of joy. She even listed the names of all the members of her family who were in attendance at the wedding in her father’s home. Tragically, however, when you flip the page to the “Deaths,” she has made another entry. “On Saturday, July 9, 1898, Jeter Ernest Murphy died of that dread disease–typhoid fever.” While the entry of the cause of death in a family Bible might seem unusual, I have seen it on several occasions. In this case, a heartbroken young bride has been suddenly widowed and entered the cause of her grievous loss in her Bible, a book in which she sought solace and understanding.

What WAS the Cause of Death?
Medical technology and terminology has certainly changed over the decades and centuries. Most of us know that “consumption” was an earlier name for “tuberculosis,” and that “palsy” referred to a paralysis or a loss of muscle control. However, older medical terms and alternative folk names for illnesses can confound you. Let’s consider a few of these older terms that you will find in histories, death-related records, and other places in your genealogical research.

Do you know to what the condition called “dropsy” referred? Dropsy is an old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the collection of excess water or fluid. Medical personnel today would refer to that condition as “edema.” Congestive heart failure is a most common form of edema. So is swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet after spending an extended period on your feet. “Brain fever” referred to inflammation of brain and/or spinal tissue, and today would be better described by the terms “encephalitis” or “meningitis.” “Lung fever” is pneumonia, and “Bright’s disease” is a term used for kidney disease, now more often called “nephritis” or “renal disease.” And “Yellow Jacket” and “Yellow Jack” were other names for the highly-feared “yellow fever.” (It was also referred to as “the American Plague.”)

Reference Resources
A visit to a used bookstore may yield a great find, such as an old medical dictionary from the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century. This makes a wonderful reference volume for your personal library. I have two of these: one cost me $15 and the other $25; I wouldn’t let them go!

There are many places on the Web where you can find translations. Enter the archaic medical term in a search engine and then check several of the search results. Individuals have also created Web pages devoted to the old terminology. Some of these include:

Genealogy Quest
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms
Cyndi’s List

Consult your local public and academic libraries for reference books and online databases. These can provide even better and more extensive definitions.

As you are discovering the causes of death of your ancestors and their families, remember that the medical conditions they suffered often influenced how they lived their lives for some extended period. Consider the physical effects on their lifestyles and their abilities to work, socialize, and interact with others around them.

Be watchful for patterns of recurring diseases and illnesses in families. The light bulb in your head just may go on when you see repetitions through successive generations. In my family genealogy, I have seen repetition of kidney disease in four generations, coronary disease in five generations, and various cancers in three generations. The work at Intermountain Healthcare’s LDS Hospital is no surprise to me. I just wonder why it took so long for such an intensive, family genealogy-related study to be begun. I’m sure that the project will yield some impressive data.

In the meantime, keep delving into your families’ causes of death.

Happy Hunting!

Listen to The Genealogy Guys Podcast ( each week. George and Drew Smith will be speaking and recording podcasts from the Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree in Burbank, CA, on 8-10 June 2007. George will also be autographing his new book, The Official Guide to
at the conference. Don’t miss it!

11 thoughts on “The Cause of Death Was . . . by George G. Morgan

  1. This was a particularly interesting article to me because this is one of the reasons that I wanted to find out more about my family in the first place. I developed congestive heart failure at the age of 52, and , as I was adopted, I wanted to know if there was a history of heart disease in my family. I have found in my searching that there were several members of my direct line that did not live to be very old and there is a definite history of heart disease there.

  2. This may be a controversial statement, but I hope you find it interesting. Certain diseases appear to be more common in certain blood types (A, B, AB and OO). Since my blood type is A (apparently AO), I may need to be more concerned about the possibility of heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and diabetes, for example, than serious arthritis. My health is similar to that of a brother and sister who are also A blood types but not very similar to a brother who is O blood type.

    So, I hope everyone will learn their own blood type and that of their siblings and ancestors (where possible) and determine whether there are correlations between blood types and long-term illnesses. We have enough to worry about without adding concern about diseases that we are not very likely to get!

  3. Would you know how to get a death certificate changed?
    My late husband’s death certificate indicates that the contributing factor was lifelong smoking. He never smoked in his life.

    Both the doctor who signed the death certificate and I have tried with no success.

    I don’t want future generations to read that erroneous fact. And, it also makes me wonder just how many death certificates/records we all look at, and that information is incorrect!

  4. For the last 3 yrs I have been workings a medical database on the causes of death in Kewaunee Co. Wi. It has proven to be an interesting and sometimes depressing project ecspecially when you need to record the deaths of 5 children in the same family dying from a disease that can now be prevented by getting a shot in the arm.

  5. This is what I have been looking for. Some of the old terms are baffling. I`ll go into the sites mentioned to see more. Keep up the good work!

  6. Just want to let readers know that in the Family Chronicle magazine for June 2007 on Pages 12-14 there is an article Causes of Death:A Guide to Archaic Terminology which list many old versions of Diseases from A to W. which I find helpful.

    C. Fletcher
    Ontario, Canada

  7. I must comment on the May 21 Weekly Journal regarding medical history often found in death certificates, obituaries, and general newspaper articles! My genealogy research has proven, without a doubt, How many generations back, there is proof of many of the illnesses that seem to gallup in my family.

    I am from a family in which my maternal side and paternal side have definite illnesses that have appeared many generations back. This information I traced due to my Genealogy Hobby. My lines include (Burns, Obriens, Dillons and Murphys). I seem to be from a family where serious Ulcer conditions have been carried cown from several generations. The first inkling of this was when I read a long article from a 1905 Kewanee Il. newspaper discribing in great detail the death of my great grandmothers son from a perforated ulcer. The article was about three columns long.

    My great grandmother,s name was Johanna Burns OBrien born in 1831, Ire. Her las two children wer twins, born in 1867. There names were Patick and Willie. Willie lived to a ripe old age but Patrick passed away from a perforated ulcer. At that time, 1905 there was no antibiotic available. In 1920, my mother,s sister, Patrick’s niece passed away at the age of 20 yrs. She was from TIskiwa, IL. Interesting enough, in my immediate family, from the Chicago area, I had a twin sister, fraternal, who died in 1948 from a bleeding ulcer in the stomach. She was 17.My mother had surgery from a bleeding ulcer, my youngest brother had surgery for a perforation, and I , in 1958 had a perforation and again in 1967 had another. I had surgery both times. My one brother never had the condition.

    You might be intersted in knowing that my paterna side of the family, the Murphy’s side had other illnesses that were rampant in the generations. Luckily my four children and their cousins on both sides have been free from most of these illness. I do hope this might be of interest to others, Who like me, have discovered this information through the amzing hobby of Genealgy. Plese feel free to use this article.

    Mary Lou McBride, Colorado Springs, Co. EMail

  8. Good Day,
    I have also found some interesting and frightening “causes of death” in my family records. There is a very long history of diabetes in my Mothers’ family, as well as cancer. Her mother, my grandmother died of breast cancer in 1938. She had traveled two years earlier to Yankton, South Dakota, for a “new treatment” which involved burning off her breast with acid. It was not sucessful. Does anyone know more about this method of cancer control? Was it ever sucessful?
    I was discovered to have Celiac Sprue about 5 years ago, another disease listed as simply Sprue, or in the case of my great great grandfather, uncontoled diarreaha. Celiac is now becoming more recognized as an adult disease, I was treated for 30 years for a spastic colon,before the celiac was confirmed. I’m in a quandry,however, as I find Sprue on both sides of my family. I wonder if there is anyway to actually find out where this inherited disease, started in my family. Again, I would like to know if there are/were any kind of records kept about Celiac Sprue, on a national or state basis?
    Any help or suggestions would be appreciated.
    Thank You,

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