Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Monday, 2 April 2012

Causes of Death : What Did He Die of?

Five Top Tips to Help You Find Out More About Your Ancestor’s Last Illness

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Your ancestors’ death certificates tell you the bald truth about their cause of death, but you can add a great deal to your picture of their final illnesses using the internet and record offices, providing you know where to look and what to look for.

  1. What exactly did he die of?
Death certificates will give you the cause of death in medical language, for example: ‘phythisis’ was tuberculosis (also known as consumption), and the mysteriously named ‘cancrum otis’ was an ulcer of the cheek and lip. For more accurate information on medical terminology use an online medical dictionary such as  If you interview elderly relatives, be aware that they may use more colloquial language to describe the sufferings of their ancestors: ‘bad blood’, for example, was a common euphemism for syphilis, ‘chin cough’ meant whooping cough, and ‘brain fever’ probably meant meningitis.  All this can be confusing. For terms that may be particularly useful to family historians see

2. What were his symptoms?

Sometimes death certificates will tell you how long an ancestor’s final battle lasted: ‘6 hours’, for example, in the case of acute illnesses, or ‘three weeks’ for longer-term problems. But that’s about as far as a death certificate goes in telling you anything about the degree to which your ancestor suffered. Help is at hand, however. There are now many websites dedicated to describing the symptoms of diseases. You can simply put the name of the name of the disease in which you are interested into google and see what comes up. Alternatively, the following general NHS site is very useful and can be searched by disease at Some websites describing symptoms include illuminating surprises. At, for example, you can actually listen to someone with whooping cough!

3. Was he the victim of an epidemic?

Your ancestor’s death may not have been an isolated event in his local community. Cholera reached the UK in 1831, for example, and attacked thousands of people across the country. In 1918 and 1919, much of Britain fell prey to the worldwide influenza pandemic. On the other hand, some outbreaks of disease, such as that of scarlet fever in Marylebone, London, in 1885, were more localised. If the death certificate records an infectious disease such as typhus or smallpox, it’s worth asking in the local library, or archive whether there was an epidemic of that disease in the locality at the time in question. Other clues to the fact that there might have been an epidemic are graveyards with large collections of gravestones from the same year and parish burial registers with many entries close together You can also see a timeline of epidemic diseases in the UK at

4. What treatments were around?

If your ancestor’s disease was infectious, check to see whether or not immunisation was available at the time of his death. Useful websites include and  The first vaccine for cholera appeared in 1879, for example and the first vaccine for typhus in 1937. But vaccines were expensive: don’t assume that your ancestor was vaccinated, just because a vaccine existed at the time he was ill.

If your ancestor was wealthy enough to be able to pay a doctor, he may have partaken of a wide range of imbrications, liniments or inhalations. Take a look at the website of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society which can be searched by the name of the disease. The British Library history timeline allows you to see the advances made in science, medicine and technology in each decade of the past.

Unless your ancestor was very well off, his or her last illness was probably treated by the family with home remedies that had been passed down from generation to generation (rather than with expensive pharmaceuticals). You can listen to people describing home remedies from the mid-twentieth century at You can also find out more about home remedies (and tips on how to keep the sick room in an acceptable condition) by reading medical advice books from the time that your ancestor died. These can often be picked up cheaply in second-hand bookshops or online at sites such as The Sunlight Year Book for 1899, for example, has an alphabetical list of medical conditions and possible home remedies from abscesses and anaemia through diarrhoea and diphtheria to shingles and toothache!

In the Treatment of Measles

Begins like a cold; feverishness, headache, cough supervenes, About the fourth day, a rash appears, usually first on the face, raised above the skin and running into half moon shaped blotches; spreading downwards it covers the body in twenty four hours. It should be encouraged to come out; there is s great danger in suppressing a rash; great care should be taken against chills, especially at night; and the room should be warm but well ventilated. The special danger is trouble with the lungs; bronchitis and pneumonia may arise. There may also be diarrhoea, sickness, inflammation of the eyes and of the windpipe.

From The Sunlight Year Book, 1899, Lever Brothers Limited, 1899

In the Treatment of Smallpox

Keep room well ventilated, use plenty of soap and smear the eruption with bacon fat daily, when it is well out; sponge patient with tepid water, as it soothes and aids convalescence. Never permit patient to feel chilly. After pustules have burst, continue the sponging and dust powdered starch over them to absorb discharge. Insist on absolute cleanliness, thorough ventilation without chilliness or draughts, and removal of all dirty linen worn by patient.

From The Sunlight Year Book, 1899, Lever Brothers Limited, 1899

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

5. Where did he die?

A death certificate will record the place where your ancestor died. This will usually have been at home. However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a stay in hospital became increasingly likely. If your ancestor was in hospital at the time of one of the nineteenth-century censuses, then he will have been recorded as a patient by the manager of the institution.

Some hospitals kept records of their patients including dates of admission, case notes detailing symptoms and treatment, dates of discharge and/or death, and even post-mortem results. You can check to see if such records have been kept for the hospital to which your ancestor was admitted by searching the Hospital Records database at the National Archives website ( Once you have checked that patient records exist for the time in question, contact the relevant record depository to view.

The patient records of a few hospitals are now online and freely available at The Historic Hospital Admissions Records Project at This includes the records of three London children’s hospitals (Great Ormond Street, The Evelina Hospital and the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Disease) and the Glasgow Royal Hospital for Sick Children.

Useful Books 

Jerger, Jeanette L. A Medical Miscellany for Genealogists, Heritage, 2009.

Porter, Roy. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine, CUP, 2001.

Flanders, Judith Inside the Victorian Home: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. HarperCollins, 2003.

Townsend, John, Bedpans, Blood and Bandages, A History of Hospitals, Raintree Publishers, 2006.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful Websites Gateway to many medical sites useful to genealogists. The British Library history timeline including advances in science, medicine and technology.  A multimedia site dedicated to the Victorians and their health A free online medical dictionary­_medicine_01.shtml
 - History of Victorian medicine

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Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, British Isles, UK, England, English, death, death certificate

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