Our Ancestors’ Health, by Juliana Smith

apothecary.bmpA couple weeks ago, I mentioned my Grandpa Pyburn in the article about the U.S. Passport Collection. As I followed up on researching that neglected family line, I found a passenger arrival record for him as he returned from Trinidad, which lies off the coast of Venezuela. When I shared it with my mom, she remarked that the record was from the time he spent working in South America–a trip on which he contracted malaria. I hadn’t heard this fact. She told me a story then that my Aunt Madelon had told her about visit him at his father’s house when he was ill; she could hear the bed rattle upstairs with the violent tremors that are symptomatic of the disease.

We don’t often think of this type of disease when it comes to our family history. When we hear about disease in the context of family history, it’s often in relation to our own health and of conditions that are hereditary. This is of course important and a great reason to investigate your family health history. In fact, it is so important that the Surgeon General here in the U.S. has a “Family History Initiative” online with tools to help you record a family health history that can be shared with your physician.

But although our family health history is perhaps the best reason to look into the health of our ancestors, it is not the only reason. Just as our own health impacts our lives and many of the decisions we make, the same held true for our ancestors.

Multiple Deaths
When family historians run across records that show family members dying in rapid succession, one of the first things to consider is a disease or an epidemic of some kind. When you’re dealing with contagious diseases, it’s not uncommon to see families decimated. Several members of my Kelly family died of tuberculosis (consumption), including my third great-grandmother at the age of twenty-six. This isn’t surprising given the contagious nature of TB. Since families often worked, traveled, and lived in close quarters with one another, situations like this are not uncommon.

Learning More
I picked up a book called “Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930,” at the FGS Conference back in August. When I cleaned my office last week it surfaced and landed in my “books-to-read” basket. The third chapter is titled, “In Sickness and in Health.” In it I found an interesting statistic in relation to my Kellys. The book cites the fact that Irish-born residents had a higher than normal death rate from tuberculosis (340 per 100,000) than native-born individuals (113 per 100,000).

Furthermore, the chapter mentions that with some diseases, there was a sentiment among immigrants that catching certain diseases was inevitable and in some cases, when one child got sick, other children were deliberately exposed in the hope that they would get a mild case and thus gain immunity to the disease.

When you learn of a disease that affected your family history, take a little time to learn more about it. What was the incubation period? How long did it last and what were the symptoms? Think about it in the context of how it would have impacted the entire family.

You may see the implications of illness in other records as well. The 1880 U.S. Federal Census asked, “Is the person (on the day of the enumerator’s visit) sick, or temporarily disabled, so as to be unable to attend to ordinary business or duties? If so, what is the sickness or disability?” It also asked how many months of the year a person was out of work during the census year. A sick bread-winner would have meant loss of income, perhaps forcing other family members and even children into the workforce.

Census mortality schedules are another record source that gives cause of death. It’s interesting to go through and see what people in your ancestor’s neighborhood were dying from. Ancestry has some of these records available online.

Unfortunately another point brought up in “Foreign and Female” was that families often didn’t want it known when there was illness in the house. There was a common fear of hospitals and quarantine, so it’s possible that there was illness in the home, even if that column happens to be blank in the census records.

Because some immigrants distrusted hospitals, and even doctors to some extent, many turned to folk healers and superstition in times of illness. The methods employed were often ineffective. In the UCLA Online Archive of Folk Medicine one entry from Slovakia says it was believed that hanging an onion above the door would keep cholera out. Since we now know that cholera is a food- or water-borne illness, the hanging onion’s effect would have been more of a decorative or odoriferous nature.

Some home remedies were actually poisonous. Another entry cites the ingestion of mercury to treat syphilis.

Patent medicines were also a problem. Ads in newspapers touted remedies to cure long lists of ailments–from the common cold to liver ailments to rheumatism. Many of these so-called “cures” were loaded with alcohol and narcotics. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters for example was 44.3 percent alcohol–or 88-proof!  An ad in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly touts Hostetter’s and “its marvelous effect upon the diseased liver.” I’m guessing the effects were less than “marvelous.”

Fleeing Disease
When an epidemic struck, you’ll often find residents fleeing the area until the pestilence passed. A New York Times article from 1907 describes how hundreds of people were fleeing an epidemic of unknown origins in Ridgway, Pennsylvania.

Research Tips
Here are some tips for researching the ailments you uncover in your family history:

  • Learn the terminology. Websites like Archaic Medical Terms can be helpful in determining the meaning of old disease names. 
  • Be aware of epidemics that struck in areas in which your ancestors lived. You can find timelines like this one online. 
  • Once you’ve identified an epidemic that may have affected your family, check historical newspapers and read any local coverage.
  • Learn more about the symptoms and duration of an illness. Modern health sites abound on the Web. Search for the name of the ailment and you’ll have a better understanding of what an ailing ancestor went through.
  • Check out Cyndi’s List for more websites with medical information. 
  • Seek out local histories. In A History of the City of Brooklyn, by Henry R. Stiles, I found the following reference to a cholera epidemic: 

“The principal event of this year was the visitation of that dreadful scourge of the human race, the epidemic cholera. It appeared in Brooklyn on the 29th of May, 1849, from which time it prevailed here until the 22d of September. During this period there were 642 deaths, *being in a ratio to the population (100,000), of one in every 155 persons* Of these deaths 495 were adults, and 147 children; the larger relative mortality among the latter (being one to every three of the former), forming a distinctive characteristic of the epidemic in this city.”

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

30 thoughts on “Our Ancestors’ Health, by Juliana Smith

  1. One of my grandfather’s sisters died of “Erysipelas, 7 days, certified“ in Co. Armagh Ireland, in the 1880s, at the age of 37. She was the only one of 8 siblings who died at such a young age.

    I found that this disease is caused by a strep infection characterized by a skin rash and can have serious complications, which must have happened in her case. It is also known as “St. Anthony’s Fire.”

  2. My gggrandfather contracted typhoid fever in the Yazoo Swamps during the Civil War. This was found in his Military Record from the National Archives.

  3. My mother was always upset that her TB test always came back positive but she did not have the disease.

    I requested her father’s death certificate and found that the place where he died was a sanitarium and he died of TB. My mom never put two and two together. Not sure why.

  4. In researching my Milnor family in Mankato MN I found that the mother and five of the children were sick two winters in a row with Diptheria. It was found to be caused from a contaminated well. At least one child died.

  5. My grandmother always loved to pass on the history of the family. Her two sister’s had died of TB. We still don’t know where they were when they died. Only know the older sister’s death date and that probably was cause the husband went to check on her since they had a son at home.
    On my mother’s side her grandma lost 3 children 2 with diptheria and 1 to kidney problems. I would say the water affected him as well.
    The saddest death was of the ancestor who was captured and taken to Andersonville prison. Merely starved to death was why he died. His own Union army shut off the supplies to this fort and with 3 thousand men as prisons they received little if any food. His death report says “Scurvy”.

  6. In researching my family, I found a greatgrandfather who
    passed away due to Brights (Kidney) Disease. There is alot of kidney related illness, including kidney cancer and kidney stones in my family. We start young with problems. We are all cousins. No one ever knew about this family health issue until I found greatgrandfathers obituary.

  7. I originally began by researching my direct Smith family in Wisconsin, but with enough information, was able to trace back to the previous generation around the Finger Lakes in NY.

    The health statistics were shocking. My GG grandparents in Wisconsin had 10 children, and several of those branches created their own mini dynasties, which spread all over the United States and Canada. However, with very few exceptions, the lines that stayed in NY were decimated by tuberculosis. Very few of those descendants had children who lived past their 30s. Finding photos and more detailed information will be difficult. One ENTIRE family of 4 children and their father all passed, most of the children at a very young age. Somehow, their mother managed to live a long life.

    I wonder if perhaps the close living conditions in NY affected the communicability of the disease, while Wisconsin offered more wide open spaces, and thus, less contagion.

  8. You just answered a question that I have had for about 55 years! When I was a little, my Irish grandma used to bundle my cousin and I up to visit other sick neighbor children, ususally for sleep overs. That was how we got mumps, chicken pox and measles before starting school. I can see how rural kids would have been ‘immunized’ against most childhood illnesses. If it was something dangerous like Dyptheria, whooping cough or polio, we stayed home, didn’t go swimming (polio), and stayed away from school until the epidemic had ended. As for head lice, we wore VERY tight braids coiled tightly to our heads, and combed with turpentine. I don’t know how that prevented head lice, maybe keeping the other kids away, but we never got them when everyone else had them.

  9. A few years ago I learned from his military records that one of my civil war soldier ancestors died in 1864 at Andersonville prison of scorbutus (scurvy).
    When I was in high school (1950’s) and contracted German measles someone brought their young, healthy daughter to visit me in the hopes that she would get it too and avoid having it during a future pregnancy that might be dangerous for a developing baby.

  10. Several weeks ago in a simple review of some Census Source data I noticed a comment that I had missed previously. My Grandmother X 3 Margaret (Welbeck/Walbach)Fischer (dob 1831)immigrated from Germany (Hanover). A small comment in the Occupation section of the 1880 Federal Census simply noted “Brights disease”. Although we cannot at this time verify it, we had always beleived that she died young and our Grandfather X 3 Charles K Fischer (Fisher) married a second time. This almost confirms that. Great article. Thanks

  11. Several of my family members died of TB. There was one instance where one family lost five children within the span of ten days from diptheria. These two instnaces were in Eastern Kentucky mountains in the 1800’s.
    More recently, in the late 1920’s typhoid was prevalent. A sad story in our family concerns my grandmother, who sent all of her children to the local school to have free immunizations but didn’t ‘have time to go’. Consequently she came down with it and was in bed for six months, losing all of her hair and almost losing her life. This was after they moved from the mountains to south central KY.

  12. My maternal Grandmother died from uteral cancer. I was told as a youngster, and I remembered it, and mentioned it to Dr.s. Other than that I have discovered gunshot has caused a couple deaths. That is something to remember too. May

  13. My grt uncle had a diagnosis of sumary claflus on death records. Further investigation suggests that they meant to spell the diagnosis as summer clavus which is ergot poisoning which is caused by a fungus which grows on grain, especially rye.It is found in the wet season of spring and summer.He became ill in the summer and died in october,1901. This makes sense as he was a farmer in Ohio.

  14. I have been writing up my mother’s family history and just this week was reviewing her great aunts. There I found that one great aunt (age 25) and her husband (age 26) both were recorded as having “malarial fever” in the 1880 U.S. Census of Ohio. The couple have a 7 month old daughter at the time. There are not records for 1890, but in 1900 the husband remarried in 1891, the daughter is not present in the census though there are three other children from the first marriage listed as well as one from the current marriage.

    I have presumed that the malaria had some effect upon the family, shortening the life of the wife, Lucy, and possibly some effect on the daughter. It is something that I will have to research when I get a chance to visit that part of Ohio.

  15. As children living in Ohio (USA), we were always told (in the 1940’s) that our mother’s father (in the West Indies) died of ‘gangrene’ of the foot. Supposedly, he had ‘kicked’ someone and had subsequently cut the nail on his ‘big’ toe with a knife. Since we, as children, were all later diagnosed with some form or degree of ‘diabetes’, we now think that he might have died (in the 1920’s) of ‘diabetes’ and not from ‘gangrene’ as originally thought. Of course, he could have had ‘diabetes’ and didn’t know it.

  16. Wow, thanks to everyone for sharing their stories! As I was reading through them this morning, I was thinking of something else I neglected to mention in the article–child mortality. So many of our ancestors’ siblings didn’t live to maturity. In one of our families, they had three boys named Alfred throughout the years and none of them lived past the toddler stage. So sad.

    In cases like this it might be tempting to pass up researching these children that died young, but it’s a good idea to seek out any records that were created during their short lives. An address on a birth or death record can place the family in a location, or it may be the only record where the mother’s maiden name is included. Baptism sponsors may provide clues to extended family too. You never know what you’ll find until you look!

    Thanks again for everyone who sent in their story. Your tale may be the key to unlocking another reader’s mystery!

  17. Most branches of my “tree” are long lived. Early on, I found
    one bunch of folks from Missouri were not living as long ss the other kin. A little research revealed that there lead mines in the area. Not proof, but really suspicious.


  18. I don’t have a lot of scientific data, but I do know my great grandfather and his 20 something school teacher daughter both died of (consumption)I suppose that is TB around the same day and were buried in the same grave. This was not in the winter, it was in July. This was in Iowa in 1890.

  19. A very interesting book to read is “The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat” by Eric Lax. It tells “the story of the penicillin miracle.” I hadn’t realized how close to my year of birth penicillin had come into use and how differently my age 2 bout with scarlet fever might have turned out.

  20. My grandmother died in a nursing home when I was a teen. She was there because she had Alzheimer’s, and we couldn’t take care of her any more. She often didn’t know who we were, and was very combative. Later on, I came across a letter written to my mother by her cousinin which she reminded my mother that their grandmother also had dementia, and that her children had trouble controlling her. When I ordered a death certicate for my grandmother’s grandmother, her cause of death was listed as “senility”. Although I don’t have the information for my grandmother’s great-grandmother, it is likely that she had it, too.

    When I read Ingrid’s story about the head lice, I thought of that book, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, where the mother used the same preventative on her children!

  21. Juliana, your comment on child mortality reminded me of my great grandfather’s son, who was always referred to as “Jacob that died.” He was born and died in 1905, and it must have been wrenching for his family, since they spoke of it around my mother who was born just 10 years later. Jacob’s parents had another son named Jacob, who fortunately lived. I have not been able to find out anything about Jacob that died. He was too late to be in the Federal Census Mortality Schedules.

  22. My paternal grandfather contracted Pandemic Flu in Omaha, NE, in 1918 (when my Dad was 3 years old). Fortunately, no one else in the household contracted the disease (that we know of). Although he recovered from the flu (as very few others did), it severely damaged Grandpa’s heart valves, and left him an invalid the rest of his life. The family eventually moved to Florida in 1926 for health reasons. There was nothing they could do for him except hospitalize him for weeks at a time when his heart would become too weak for him to remain at home. He died in Miami, FL, in 1941.

    My uncle (who was born in 1921) died from heart disease in 1977, and I have always wondered if Grandpa’s genes were also somehow affected by the Flu, resulting in the heart disease being passed on to Uncle Frank. But that would not explain why my Dad developed heart disease in his 50’s, which led to congestive heart failure in later life, and finally took his life in 2003, at the age of 88.

    Barbara Paulson
    Knoxville, TN

  23. I found out that my third grandparents (Thomas and Malvina Ray) and their children fled from Spartanburg, SC to Arkansas because of a pandemic that broke out around the 1890s. After things cooled down most of the family moved back and later moved to Arkansas again. My great-grandma Annie Wheeler Lyles’s sister,Virgie, died of syphlis when she was about 20. At that time African-Americans were dying of this disease. No one knows about this part of the family history, but my grandmother (Annie’s daughter) was very surprised. Some of my grandparents had Bright’s Disease and hypertension, but I mostly found this information when I looked up their death certificates. I believe that is important to know the health of your ancestors and it may be the answer to current health problems or a way to prevent the problems from happening.

  24. I am Cuban, but I live in California. Looking at old documents I recently found out that at least ten members from the same family, including small children, died in Havana during a short period of time, around 1890 1nd 1895. According to the documents, they all died from Paludic Fever (spell check).
    After reading this article I think I am going to follow the advice and find out more about this illness and how it have affected my ancestors life. The subject now openned a lot of questions for me and I will check the sites you recomend to learn more about this topic and see how I can incorporated to my family history. Thank you. Very helpful.

  25. My grandmother told me the story of how her brother, Fountain McGirk Smith, was not allowed by his parents to enlist and fight in World War I. Instead he went to the docks in Galveston, Texas to work and contracted Yellow Fever. He died at the age of 18 on July 28, 1918. I have been a microbiologist in the past and have a Masters in Public Health with a concentration in epidemiology. The spread of infectious disease has always interested me. However, I’ve not been able to pinpoint my granduncle’s true cause of death. Both yellow fever and dengue fever were prevalent in the Galveston area at that time and dengue was often mis-diagnosed as yellow fever. The Spanish flu epidemic was also in full swing at that time.

    My great great grandfather, Nathaniel Hutchison McGirk, contracted tuberculosis during the Civil War. He served in Missouri in Searcy’s Sharpshooters as their physician. He was captured and sent to prison in New Orleans, but was treated well due to the fact that hwe was a physician. After the war the family moved to warmer climes due to Dr. McGirk’s TB. First they went to Venzuela (where my great grandmother was born), and then to Trinidad where Dr. McGirk served as the vaccinating physician. In 1885 Dr. McGirk was offered the position of private physician to the van Romondt family on St. Martin in the Dutch West Indies. After leaving St. Martin Dr. McGirk worked as a physician for a short while in San Diego and finally settled his practice in Pleasanton, Texas (south of San Antonio). TB dictated that Dr. McGirk remain in southern climates.

    John C. Harrison (my 3rd great garnduncle) and his wife, Nancy, both died of yellow fever in Walker Co., Texas. They left two young children behind. The children were raised by an aunt and uncle who apparently had no children of their own.

    My ex-husband’s great grandmother, Margaret Brown, was born in Rhymney, Bedwellty Parish, Monmouthshire, Wales. She immigrated to the US (Pennsylvania) with her family at the age of 18. She married William Pugh a year later. She died at the age of 27 from heart disease due to rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is a sequelae to a beta streptococcus group A infection (same organism that causes strep throat). She left her husband with four very young children to raise. The youngest was only four months old. William Pugh remarried a few years later, but it appears raising a four month old was a bit too much for him. Clarence was raised by his mother’s brother, Joseph Brown, and his wife. The couple had no other children. Clarence was taken to Ohio to be raised by his uncle and he later assumed the surname of “Brown”. He named one of his sons after his uncle.

    It becomes readily apparent that infectious disease can dictate where a family lives and have dramatic effects on family structure.

  26. When my boys were very young I recieved a letter from a Sister of my Mother stating that she had just discovered that her son had Hemochromotosis a serious genetic blood disease and she wanted to alert everyone in the family to be on the lookout for other cases in the family. Knowing that it was a Celtic disease, and both parents had to carry the gene,I did not think to much about it because my husbands family were German. Later in doing genealogy into his family I discoved his ancestry was indeed German, but also Scotch, Irish and English and he had more Celtic ancestry than German. In time one of my sons developed a condition that defied diagnosis. After many many tests still no results. I thought about the letter, dug it out of the files gave it to the doctor who performed the necessary blood tests, and you guessed it he had the disease. That letter in all probability saved his life. the other son was tested and also found to have the gene that causes the disease. I am so thankful for receiving and saving that letter. That simple act of kindness on my Aunts part will save many for generations to come. as they say in genealogy no piece of information is worthless and in this cas it was pricless.

  27. In researching church records in eastern Slovakia, I found evidence of early vaccinations for variola, smallpox. The records stretched from 1802 to 1808 and the children were listed by name and parent, age, village and the success of the vaccination. Children as young as 3 months and up to 11 years of age were vaccinated. Probably at this point, adults had already been exposed and were immune. Smallpox was a terrible scourge, wiping out entire families and disfiguring those who survived.
    A Doctor Kern is mentioned; the church was probably Lutheran; the villages were Radvany, Babafalva, and Nemethfalva [Nemcovce]. The record is in Latin and in Hungarian.

  28. Midwifery was an important occupation in many countries. In one particular church record from Slovakia, the midwives of several villages were honored by the parish priest. Obviously in the absence of any sort of medical care, they performed a needed service to the community. My research, from about 1715 to the late 1880s in Kurima, Saris, Slovakia,indicates that not many women died in childbirth and when they did, it would have been a situation beyond the expertise of the midwife. Babies did die at alarming rates by today’s standards, but mostly through communicable diseases. My own ancestor died of kohages [cough-which I assume was pertussis, whooping cough].
    When the families immigrated to the US, the survival rate and life spans were greatly extended.

  29. I have been watching my family although I did not know others were doing the same thing. I only have known of two or three things that caught my attention. I don’t have germs things but I have found two different other things. The first appendicitis. In about 8 generation the periontinitus killed, two males, my graddad got through the peribtitnitus but was weak enough a case of stomach virus took his life. I was the only female I have seen and with God’s help and all of the marvelous medical help of today just barely survived.
    My husband’s family had 2 of his mother’s generation die of TB. Now his brother has an onset of asthma out the blue and with heart problems my husband who has never smoked has lungs as bad as bad as a smoker. A daughter suffers from severe bronchitis. Which I think is because she has weak lungs.
    The things can put you on guard and give you understanding.

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