They Died of What? Historic Causes of Death

Names for Old Diseases and Obsolete Medical Terms

Names of many old diseases and medical conditions from centuries ago are no longer in use today.
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Two centuries ago doctors were dealing with medical conditions such as burns, asthma, epilepsy, and angina that are still familiar today. However, they were also contending with deaths caused by such things as auge (malaria), dropsy (edema), or spontaneous combustion (especially of "brandy-drinking men and women"). Death certificates from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often include obsolete medical terms which may be unfamiliar or unexpected, such as milk sickness (poisoning by drinking milk from cows that have eaten the white snakeroot plant), Bright's disease (kidney disease) or consumption (tuberculosis).

A newspaper account attributed the 1886 death of fireman Aaron Culver to drinking too much cold water. It also wasn't uncommon during the Victorian-era to see an official cause of death noted as visitation by God (often another way of saying "natural causes").

Numerous health conditions that led to death prior to the early twentieth century have all but disappeared today thanks to drastic improvements in hygiene and medicine. Hundreds of thousands of women died needlessly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of puerperal fever, an infection caused by bacteria introduced by unwashed hands and medical instruments. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century and the widespread use of vaccines, diseases like smallpox, polio and measles killed thousands each year. Yellow fever was the noted cause of death on the majority of 5,000+ death certificates issued in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, between August 1 and November 9, 1793.

Many once common medical treatments have fallen by the wayside as well. The use of maggots to debride dead tissue from infected wounds was commonplace well into the twentieth century, prior to the widespread introduction of penicillin during World War II. Leeches were popular with doctors for blood-letting to "balance" the four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) and bring an ill patient back into good health.

And while there really is such a thing as medicinal snake oil, there were also many quacks who peddled the health benefits of unproven patent medicines and elixirs.

List of Old or Obsolete Diseases & Medical Terms

  • Ablepsy - blindness
  • Ague - Used to describe intermittent fever and chills; usually, but not always, associated with malaria. Also called febrile intermittens.
  • Aphonia - A suppression of the voice; laryngitis
  • Apoplexy - A disease in which the patient falls down suddenly without other sense or motion; stroke
  • Bilious remitting fever - dengue fever
  • Break-bone or Break-heart fever - dengue fever
  • Biliousness - jaundice
  • Bloody Flux - dysentery; an inflammation of the intestine causing diarrhea with blood.
  • Brain Fever - an inflammation of the brain, used to describe one of several different brain infections including encephalitis, meningitis and cerebritis
  • Camp Fever - Typhus
  • Chlorosis - anemia; also called green sickness
  • Cholera infantum - infant diarrhea; sometimes called "summer diarrhea" or "summer complaint"
  • Catarrh - This term is still in use today to describe excessive buildup of mucus in the nose or throat, associated with inflammation of the mucous membrane. However, in the 19th century the term was used more generally to describe upper respiratory ailments such as bronchitis or the common cold.
  • Consumption - Tuberculosis
  • Creeping paralysis - Syphilis
  • Debility - used to describe "failure to thrive" in infancy, or in old age due to loss of weight from undiagnosed cancer or other disorder.
  • Dropsy - edema; often caused by congestive heart failure
  • Dyspepsia - acid indigestion or heartburn
  • Falling sickness - epilepsy
  • French pox or French disease - syphilis
  • Green sickness - anemia; also called chlorosis
  • Grip or Grippe - influenza
  • Marasmus - a wasting of the flesh without fever or apparent disease; severe malnutrition
  • Milk sickness - poisoning from drinking milk from cows that have eaten the white snakeroot plant; found only in the midwest United States
  • Mortification - gangrene; necrosis
  • Nostalgia - homesickness; yes, this was occasionally listed as a cause of death
  • Phthisis - the French word for "consumption"; tuberculosis
  • Quinsy - a peritonsillar abscess, a known complication of tonsillitis
  • Scrumpox - skin disease; usually an infection caused by the herpes simplex virus


Additional Sources for Historical Medical Terms & Conditions

Grammars of Death. Accessed 19 Apr 2016. https://sites.google.com/a/umich.edu/grammars-of-death/home

Chase, A. W., MD. Dr. Chase's Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book and Household Physician, or Practical Knowledge for the People. Detroit: F. B. Dickerson Co., 1904.

"Decennial Cause of Death in England, 1851–1910." A Vision of Britain Through Time. Accessed 19 Apr 2016. www.visionofbritain.org.uk.

Hooper, Robert. Lexicon Medicum; or Medical Dictionary. New York: Harper, 1860.

National Center for Health Statistics. "Leading Causes of Death, 1900–1998." Accessed 19 Apr 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/dvs/lead1900_98.pdf.

The National Archives (UK). "Historic Mortality Datasets." Accessed 19 Apr 2016. http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk.