Friday, 5 August 2011

Death Certifcates

Death certificates are fantastic documents in their own right but were never designed for family historians. The cause of death is of intense interest to researchers whether for family history or the increasing numbers of people researching their medical family history. 

We receive the certificate and the first thing we look at is the cause of death which can be very informative. A certificate showing “Burns and suffocation following explosion of fire damp at Universal Colliery due to accident” is fantastic and leads to further research. When you see as a cause of death terms such as marasmus, inanition, Visitation of God, just what do these terms mean?

Knowing who determined the cause of death and knowing something of the medical knowledge of the time can help in deciphering the cause. In a time of few or no diagnostic tests such as X-rays or laboratory tests many diseases were diagnosed on their visible symptoms. In many places it was not a requirement that a doctor had to certify the cause of death so in many early certificates seeing causes of death such as black pox, wasting, senile decay were not unusual and of course, "Act of God",  the term for an unexpected death with no visible cause.

Names for the same diseases could vary by geographic region or by ethnicity within a region. 

I'd recommend acquiring an early (pre 1920s) medical dictionary. These are often available at old book sales or you can buy online via second-hand shops such as AbeBooks. These will give a good snapshot of the knowledge at the time. I would be hesitant though to use any of the remedies!

Online options are to Google the term or try an online medical dictionaries are available although most do not contain the old terms. 

One place that does is Rudy's List of Archaic Terms which is very comprehensive and best of all has lists of terms in a variety of other languages. He is very interested in any new terms you may have that are not on his site. Well worth a visit.

I would also be interested in any unusual terms you have seen for cause of death. I am happy to help interpret possible modern day meanings of any terms.

1 comment:

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