Understanding Old Medical Terms

by Ruby Coleman

Looking at old documents such as death certificates, mortality schedules, letters, journal entries and medical receipts, genealogists are forced to transcribe some of the ailments, causes of death and reasons for the death into 21st century terms. We should always consider that the living conditions were different in earlier centuries, as well as the naming of illnesses and treatment of them.

A frequent cause of death in young mothers was childbed fever. This was caused from one or more factors of uncleanness at the time of delivery. Women were often not washed and prepped for the deliver and doctors were not as cautious as they should have been about sterilization. It was not uncommon for doctors to not also wash their hands, thus they may have been contributing bacteria to the woman giving birth. The result was a high fever within days of the delivery, causing the moth er to become critically ill. Once sterilization and cleanliness were understood the death rates from childbed fever went down.

Many Civil War soldiers continued to suffer from afflictions that were brought on during their service. Not only did they loose limbs or have gunshot wounds, but many continued to suffer from diarrhea or dysentery. The difference primarily is that dysentery was an inflammation of the colon which caused severe diarrhea. Another term that researchers will see on pension applications is bloody flux. This was a term used in reference to mucus and blood passed in cases of diarrhea.

By 1806 morphine was in use. As a pain killer it was frequently used on Civil War soldiers. It was easily obtained and administered. This results in many soldiers becoming addicted to it. Drugs that we would consider as illegal today were used with frequency centuries ago. In an ancestor's probate file I found a receipt dated 16 June 1850 for the visitation and medications administered just prior to his death. The doctors were summoned because of severe indigestion and ad ministered mustard plaster, blister plaster, along with repeated injections of Laudanum, Oil of Turpentine, Opium, Nitre and Croton Oil.

All of these drugs did nothing but hasten his death within a few days of their use. Laudanum was an opium-based painkiller that doctors prescribed for everything from headaches to tuberculosis. Oil of Turpentine was used commonly as a liniment, but was also used to make varnish. Opium was used to numb or dull pain and was a bitter, strongly addictive narcotic drug made from the dried juice of unripe pods of the opium poppy. The mustard plaster was a paste make of powdered black mustard, flour and water and used as a counterirritant. Blister Paster was made of Spanish flies and was used to raise blisters. The Croton Oil was a foul-smelling oil used as a drastic purgative and counterirritant. It was extremely toxic.

A common term seen in death records or lists of ailments is la grippe. This was an influenza, which was contagious and produced aches, pains and an inflammation of the respiratory mucous membrane. Other contagious diseases included cholera, the dreaded plague of wagon trains pushing across the United States. It was an acute infection in the small intestine, causing great pain and ultimately death. Many of the travelers thought they could out run it.

Catarrh is another term commonly found in records. It was originally used for inflammations of the mucous membranes, such as in the nose and throat. A cold producing a runny nose was commonly called catarrh. A more serious condition was known as consumption, which today we refer to as tuberculosis.

Walk through cemeteries and you will undoubtedly find several family members, particularly children, who died on the same day or within days of each other. There probably was some type of disease that swept through the area or community. Communicable diseases such as typhoid fever, smallpox and scarlet fever would take several lives before the weather changed, living conditions changed or the disease just ran its course.

The following are some web pages that will provide a good deal more information regarding the old medical terms and treatments.

Archaic Medical Terms

Old Time Disease Names

Forgotten Medical Cures

Fortunately medical science has come a long way today. Not only the understand of the disease, but the cures save lives that a century or more ago would have been given up as hopeless. While reconstructing your medical pedigree, don't forget that what was terminal for an ancestor years ago, is not for you today.

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