Shirley Hornbeck's This and That Genealogy Tips on Diseases, Medical Terms and Epidemics

Ablepsy: Blindness

Abscess: A localized collection of pus buried in tissues, organs, or confined spaces of the body, often accompanied by swelling and inflammation and frequently caused by bacteria. See boil.

Addison's disease: A disease characterized by severe weakness, low blood pressure, and a bronzed coloration of the skin, due to decreased secretion of cortisol from the adrenal gland. Synonyms: Morbus addisonii, bronzed skin disease.

Ague: Malarial or intermittent fever characterized by paroxysms (stages of chills, fever, and sweating at regularly recurring times) and followed by an interval or intermission of varying duration. Popularly, the disease was known as "fever and ague," "chill fever," "the shakes," and by names expressive of the locality in which it was prevalent, such as, "swamp fever" (in Louisiana), "Panama fever," and "Chagres fever."

Ague-cake: A form of enlargement of the spleen, resulting from the action of malaria on the system.

American Plague: Yellow fever.

Anasarca: Generalized massive dropsy/edema. See Dropsy.

Anchylosis: Stiff joint.

Anidrosis: Too little perspiration.

Anthrax: Carbuncle or large painful boil.

Aphonia: Laryngitis.

Aphtha: The infant disease "thrush"

Apoplexy: Paralysis due to stroke.

Aphthae: See thrush.

Aphthous stomatitis: See canker.

Arachnitis: Inflammation of membranes in the brain.

Ascites: Water in the stomach. See dropsy.

Asphycsia/Asphicsia: Cyanotic and lack of oxygen.

Asthenia: See debility.

Atrophy: Wasting away or diminishing in size.

Bad Blood: Syphilis.

Barbers Itch: Ringworm of the beard.

Bilious Colic or Fever: A term loosely applied to certain intestinal and malarial fevers. Typhoid. Hepatitis. Elevated temperature and bile emesis. See typhus.

Biliousness: A complex of symptoms comprising nausea, abdominal discomfort, headache, and constipation, formerly attributed to excessive secretion of bile from the liver.

Black Plague or Death: Bubonic Plague.

Black Fever: Acute infection with high temperature and dark red skin lesions and high mortality rate.

Black Small Pox/Black Vomit: Vomiting old black blood due to ulcers or yellow fever.

Blackwater Fever: Dark urine associated with high temperature.

Bladder in Throat: Diphtheria.

Blood Poisoning: Bacterial infection, Septicemia.

Bloody Flux: Inflammation of the large bowels aka colitis. Bloody stools.

Bloody Sweat: Sweating sickness.

Boil: An abscess of skin or painful inflammation of the skin or a hair follicle usually caused by a staphylococcal infection. Synonym: furuncle.

Bone Shave: Sciatica.

Brain fever: Intense headache, fever, vertigo. See meningitis, typhus.

Breakbone: Dengue fever.

Bright's Disease: Chronic inflammatory disease of kidneys. Glomerulonephritis (kidney inflammation).

Bronchial asthma: A disorder of breathing, characterized by spasm of the bronchial tubes of the lungs, wheezing, and difficulty in breathing air outward, often accompanied by coughing and a feeling of tightness in the chest.

Bronze John: Yellow fever.

Bule: Boil, tumor or swelling.

Cachexy: Malnutrition.

Cacospysy: Irregular pulse.

Cacogastric: Upset stomach.

Caduceus: Subject to falling sickness or epilepsy.

Camp fever, Camp diarrhea: Typhus.

Cancer: A malignant and invasive growth or tumor. In the nineteenth century, cancerous tumors tended to ulcerate, grew constantly, and progressed to a fatal end and that there was scarcely a tissue they would not invade. Synonyms: malignant growth, carcinoma.

Canine Madness: Rabies, hydrophobia.

Cancrum otis: A severe, destructive, eroding ulcer of the cheek and lip. In the last century it was seen in delicate, ill-fed, ill-tended children between the ages of two and five. The disease was the result of poor hygiene. It was often fatal. The disease could, in a few days, lead to gangrene of the lips, cheeks, tonsils, palate, tongue, and even half the face; teeth would fall from their sockets. Synonyms: canker, water canker, noma, gangrenous stomatitis, gangrenous ulceration of the mouth.

Canker: An ulcerous sore of the mouth and lips, not considered fatal today. Herpes simplex. Synonym: Aphthous stomatitis. See Cancrum otis.

Catalepsy: seizures/trances Catarrhal: Inflammation of a mucous membrane, especially of the air passages of the head and throat, with a free discharge. Bronchial catarrh was bronchitis; suffocative catarrh was croup; urethral catarrh was gleet; vaginal catarrh was leukorrhea; epidemic catarrh was the same as influenza. Synonyms: cold, coryza.

Cerebritis: Inflammation of cerebrum or lead poisoning.

Chilblains: Painful sore or swelling of the foot or hand caused by exposure to the cold.

Child Bed Fever: Infection following birth of a child.

Chin cough: Whooping cough.

Chlorosis: iron deficiency anemia.

Cholera: An acute, infectious disease characterized by profuse diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. Cholera is spread by feces-contaminated water and food. Major epidemics struck the United States in the years 1832, 1849, and 1866.

Cholera infantum: A common, noncontagious diarrhea of young children, occurring in summer or autumn. It was common among the poor and in hand-fed babies. Death frequently occurred in three to five days. Synonyms: summer complaint, weaning brash, water gripes, choleric fever of children, cholera morbus.

Cholecystitus: Inflammation of the gall bladder.

Cholelithiasis: Gall stones.

Chorea: Any of several diseases of the nervous system, characterized by jerky movements that appear to be well coordinated but are performed involuntarily, chiefly of the face and extremities. Synonym: Saint Vitus' dance.

Clap: Gonorrhea.

Cold plague: Ague which is characterized by chills.

Colic: Paroxysmal pain in the abdomen or bowels. Infantile colic is benign paroxysmal abdominal pain during the first three months of life. Colic rarely caused death. Renal colic can occur from disease in the kidney, gallstone colic from a stone in the bile duct.

Congestion: An excessive or abnormal accumulation of blood or other fluid in a body part or blood vessel. In congestive fever the internal organs become gorged with blood.

Congestive Fever/Chills: Malaria.

Consumption: A wasting away of the body; formerly applied especially to pulmonary tuberculosis. Synonyms: marasmus (in the mid-nineteenth century), phthisis.

Convulsions: Severe contortion of the body caused by violent, involuntary muscular contractions of the extremities, trunk, and head. See epilepsy.

Corruption: Infection.

Coryza: A cold. See catarrh.

Costiveness: Constipation.

Cramp colic: Appendicitis.

Croup: Any obstructive condition of the larynx (voice box) or trachea (windpipe), characterized by a hoarse, barking cough and difficult breathing occurring chiefly in infants and children. In the early nineteenth century it was called cynanche trachealis. The crouping noise was similar to the sound emitted by a chicken affected with the pip, which in some parts of Scotland was called roup; hence, probably, the term croup. Synonyms: roup, hives, choak, stuffing, rising of the lights.

Crusted Tetter: Impetigo.

Cyanosis: Dark skin color from lack of oxygen in blood.

Cynanche: Diseases of throat.

Cystitis: Inflammation of the bladder.

Day Fever: Fever lasting one day; sweating sickness.

Debility: Abnormal bodily weakness or feebleness; decay of strength. This was a term descriptive of a patient's condition and of no help in making a diagnosis. Synonym: Asthenia.

Decrepitude: Feebleness due to old age.

Delirium tremens: Hallucinations due to alcoholism.

Dengue: Infectious fever endemic to East Africa.

Dentition: Cutting of teeth.

Deplumation: Tumor of the eyelids which causes hair loss.

Diary fever: A fever that lasts one day.

Diphtheria: An acute infectious disease acquired by contact with an infected person or a carrier of the disease. It was usually confined to the upper respiratory tract (throat) and characterized by the formation of a tough membrane (false membrane) attached firmly to the underlying tissue that would bleed if forcibly removed. In the nineteenth century the disease was occasionally confused with scarlet fever and croup.

Distemper: Usually animal disease with malaise, discharge from nose and throat, anorexia.

Dock fever: Yellow fever.

Dropsy: A contraction for hydropsy. The presence of abnormally large amounts of fluid. Congestive heart failure.

Dropsy of the Brain: Encephalitis.

Dry bellyache: Lead poisoning.

Dyscrasy: An abnormal body condition.

Dysentery: A term given to a number of disorders marked by inflammation of the intestines (especially of the colon). There are two specific varieties: (1) amebic dysentery (2) bacillary dysentery. Synonyms: flux, bloody flux, contagious pyrexia (fever), frequent griping stools.

Dysorexy: Reduced appetite.

Dyspepsia: Indigestion and heartburn. Heart attack symptoms.

Dysury: Difficulty in urination.

Eclampsia: A form of toxemia (toxins, or poisons, in the blood) accompanying pregnancy. See dropsy.

Eclampsy: Symptoms of epilepsy, convulsions during labor.

Edema: Nephrosis; swelling of tissues.

Edema of lungs: Congestive heart failure, a form of dropsy.

Eel thing: Erysipelas.

Effluvia: Exhalations. In the mid-nineteenth century, they were called "vapours" and distinguished into the contagious effluvia, such as rubeolar (measles); marsh effluvia, such as miasmata.

Elephantiasis: a form of leprosy.

Emphysema, pulmonary: A chronic, irreversible disease of the lungs.

Encephalitis: Swelling of brain; aka sleeping sickness.

Enteric fever: Typhoid fever.

Enterocolitis: Inflammation of the intestines.

Enteritis: Inflammation of the bowels.

Epilepsy: A disorder of the nervous system, characterized either by mild, episodic loss of attention or sleepiness (petittnal) or by severe convulsions with loss of consciousness (grand mal). Synonyms: falling sickness, fits.

Epitaxis: Nose bleed.

Erysipelas: Contagious skin disease due to Streptococci with vesicular and bulbous lesions. Synonyms: Rose, Saint Anthony's Fire (from its burning heat or, perhaps, because Saint Anthony was supposed to cure it miraculously).

Extravasted blood: Rupture of a blood vessel.

Falling sickness: Epilepsy.

Fatty Liver: Cirrhosis of liver.

Fits: Sudden attack or seizure of muscle activity.

Flux: An excessive flow or discharge of fluid like hemorrhage or diarrhea/dysentery.

Flux of humour: Circulation.

French pox: Syphilis.

Furuncle: A boil.

Gangrene: Death and decay of tissue in a part of the body--usually a lime, due to injury, disease, or failure of blood supply. Synonym: mortification.

Gathering: A collection of pus.

Glandular Fever: Mononucleosis.

Gleet: See catarrh.

Gravel: A disease characterized by small stones which are formed in the kidneys, passed along the ureters to the bladder, and expelled with the urine. Synonym: kidney stone.

Great pox: Syphilis.

Green fever/sickness: Anemia.

Grippe: An old term for influenza

Grocer's Itch: Skin disease caused by mites in sugar or flour.

Heart sickness: Condition caused by loss of salt from body.

Heat Stroke: Body temperature elevates because of surrounding environment temperature and body does not perspire to reduce temperature. Coma and death result if not reversed.

Hectic fever/Hectical complaint: A daily recurring fever with profound sweating, chills, and flushed appearance,- often associated with pulmonary tuberculosis or septic poisoning.

Hematemesis: Vomiting blood.

Hematuria: Bloody urine.

Hemiplegy: Paralysis of one side of body.

Hip Gout: Osteomylitis.

Hives: A skin eruption of smooth, slightly elevated areas on the skin which is redder or paler than the surrounding skin. Often attended by severe itching. Also called cynanche trachealis. In the mid-nineteenth century, hives was a commonly given cause of death of children three years and under. Because true hives does not kill, croup was probably the actual cause of death in those children.

Horrors: Delirium tremens.

Hospital fever: See typhus.

Hydrocephalus: Enlarged head, water on the brain. See dropsy.

Hydroperticardium: Heart dropsy.

Hydrothorax: See dropsy.

Hydrophobia: Rabies.

Hydrothroax: Dropsy in chest.

Hypertrophic: Enlargement of organ, like the heart.

Icterus: See jaundice.

Impetigo: Contagious skin disease characterized by pustules.

Inanition: Exhaustion from lack of nourishment; starvation.

Infantile paralysis: Polio.

Infection: In the early part of the last century, infections were thought to be the propagation of disease by effluvia (see above) from patients crowded together. "Miasms" were believed to be substances which could not be seen in any form, emanations not apparent to the senses. Such Miasms were understood to act by infection.

Inflammation: Redness, swelling, pain, tenderness, heat, and disturbed function of an area of the body. In the last century, cause of death often was listed as inflammation of a body organ, such as, brain or lung, but this was purely a descriptive term and is not helpful in identifying the actual underlying disease.

Intestinal colic: Abdominal pain due to improper diet.

Jail fever: Typhus.

Jaundice: Yellow discoloration of the skin, whites of the eyes, and mucous membranes, due to an increase of bile pigments in the blood. Synonym: Icterus.

Kidney stone: See gravel.

Kings evil: A popular name for scrofula. The name originated in the time of Edward the Confessor, with the belief that the disease could be cured by the touch of the King of England.

Kruchhusten: Whooping cough.

Lagrippe: Influenza.

Living in: Time of delivery of infant.

Lockjaw: Tetanus, a disease in which the jaws become firmly locked together. Synonyms: trismus, tetanus.

Lues disease: Syphilis.

Lues venera: Venereal disease.

Lumbago: Back pain.

Lung Fever: Pneumonia

Lung Sickness: Tuberculosis.

Malignant fever: See typhus.

Malignant sore throat: Diphtheria.

Mania: Insanity.

Marasmus: Malnutrition occurring in infants and young children, caused by an insufficient intake of calories or protein.

Membranous Croup: Diphtheria.

Meningitis: Inflammation of the meninges (brain and spinal cord) characterized by high fever, severe headache, and stiff neck or back muscles. Synonym: brain fever.

Metritis: Inflammation of uterus or purulent vaginal discharge.

Miasma: Poisonous vapors thought to infect air.

Milk fever: Disease from drinking contaminated milk, like undulant fever or brucellosis.

Milk leg: Post partum thrombophlebitis.

Milk sickness: poisoning resulting from the drinking of milk produced by a cow who had eaten a plant known as white snake root or other poisonous weeds.

Mormal: gangrene.

Morphew: Scurvy blisters on the body.

Mortification: Gangrene of necrotic tissue.

Myelitis: Inflammation of the spine.

Myocarditis: Inflammation of the heart muscles.

Necrosis: Mortification of bones or tissue.

Nephrosis: Kidney degeneration.

Nepritis: Inflammation of kidneys.

Nervous prostration: Extreme exhaustion from inability to control physical and mental activities.

Neuralgia: Sharp and paroxysmal pain along the course of a sensory nerve. Discomfort such as headache was Neuralgia in head.

Nostalgia: Homesickness.

Palsy: Paralysis or uncontrolled movement of controlled muscles. It was listed as "cause of death".

Paristhmitis: See quinsy.

Paroxysm: Convulsions.

Pellagra: Disease caused by eating spoiled maize.

Pemphigus: Skin disease of watery blisters.

Pericarditis: Inflammation of heart.

Peripneumonia: Inflammation of lungs.

Peritonotis: Inflammation of abdominal area.

Petechial fever: Fever characterized by skin spotting. See typhus.

Phthiriasis: Lice infestation.

Phthisis: Chronic wasting away or a name for tuberculosis. See consumption.

Plague/Black Death: Bubonic Plague.

Pleurisy: Inflammation of the pleura, the lining of the chest cavity. Symptoms are chills, fever, dry cough, and pain in the affected side (a stitch).

Pneumonia: Inflammation of the lungs

Podagra: Gout.

Poliomyelitis: Polio.

Potter's asthma: Fibroid pthisis.

Potts Disease: Tuberculosis of the spinal vertebrae.

Pox: Syphilis.

Puerperal exhaustion: Death due to child birth.

Puerperal fever: Elevated temperature after giving birth to an infant.

Puking fever: Milk sickness.

Putrid fever: Typhus Fever, Ship Fever, Diphtheria, transmitted by the bite of fleas and lice.

Putrid sore throat: Ulceration of an acute form, attacking the tonsils.

Pyemia: Blood poisoning from pus in the blood.

Pyrexia: See dysentery.

Quinsy: An acute inflammation of the tonsils, often leading to an abscess. Synonyms: suppurative tonsillitis, cynanche tonsillaris, paristhmitis, sore throat.

Remitting fever: Malaria.

Rheumatism: Any disorder associated with paint in joints.

Rickets: Disease of skeletal system.

Rose cold: Hay fever or nasal symptoms of an allergy.

Rose-Rash: Roseola or "false measles".

Rotanny fever: Child's disease??

Rubeola: German measles.

Sanguineous crust: Scab.

Scarlatina/ Scarlet fever: A contagious disease noted by red rash.

Scarlet rash: Roseola.

Sciatica: Rheumatism in the hips.

Scirrhus: Cancerous tumors.

Scotomy: Dizziness, nausea and dimness of sight.

Scrivener's palsy: Writer's cramp.

Screws: Rheumatism.

Scrofula: Primary tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands, especially those in the neck. A disease of children and young adults. Synonym: king's evil.

Scrumpox: Skin disease, impetigo.

Scurvy: Lack of vitamin C. Symptoms of weakness, spongy gums and hemorrhages under skin.

Septic: Infected, a condition of local or generalized invasion of the body by disease-causing germs.

Septicemia: Blood poisoning.

Shakes: Delirium tremens.

Shaking: Chills, ague.

Shingles: Viral disease with skin blisters.

Ship fever: Typhus.

Siriasis: Brain inflammation due to sun exposure.

Sloes: Milk sickness.

Small pox: Contagious disease with fever and blisters.

Softening Of The Brain: cerebral hemorrhage/stroke.

Sore throat distemper: Diphtheria or quinsy.

Spanish influenza: Epidemic influenza.

Spasms: Sudden involuntary contraction of muscle or group of muscles, like a convulsion.

Spina bifida: Deformity of spine.

Spotted fever: Typhus or meningitis.

Sprue: Tropical disease characterized by intestinal disorders and sore throat.

St. Anthony's fire: Also erysipelas, but named so because of affected skin areas are bright red in appearance.

St. Vitas dance: Ceaseless occurrence of rapid complex jerking movements performed involuntary.

Stomatitis: Inflammation of the mouth.

Stranger's fever: Yellow fever.

Strangery: Rupture.

Sudor anglicus: Sweating sickness.

Summer complaint: Diarrhea, usually in infants caused by spoiled milk. See cholera infantum.

Sunstroke: Uncontrolled elevation of body temperature due to environment heat. Lack of sodium in the body is a predisposing cause.

Suppuration: The production of pus.

Swamp fever: Could be malaria, typhoid or Encephalitis.

Sweating Sickness: Infectious and fatal disease common to UK in 15th century.

Teething: The entire process which results in the eruption of the teeth. Nineteenth century medical reports stated that infants were more prone to disease at the time of teething. Symptoms were restlessness, fretfulness, convulsions, diarrhea, and painful and swollen gums. The latter could be relieved by lancing over the protruding tooth. Often teething was reported as a cause of death in infants. Perhaps they became susceptible to infections, especially if lancing was performed without antisepsis. Another explanation of teething as a cause of death is that infants were often weaned at the time of teething; perhaps they then died from drinking contaminated milk, leading to an infection, or from malnutrition if watered-down milk was given.

Tetanus: An infectious, often fatal disease caused by a specific bacterium that enters the body through wounds. Synonyms: trismus, lockjaw.

Thrombosis: Blood clot inside blood vessel.

Thrush: A disease characterized by whitish spots and ulcers on the membranes of the mouth, tongue, and fauces caused by a parasitic fungus. Synonyms: Aphthae, sore mouth Aphthous stomatitis.

Tick fever: Rocky mountain spotted fever.

Toxemis of pregnancy: Eclampsia.

Trench mouth: Painful ulcers found along gum line. Caused by poor nutrition and poor hygiene.

Trismus nascentium or neonatorum: A form of tetanus seen only in infants, almost invariably in the first five days of life.

Tussis convulsive: Whooping cough.

Typhoid fever: An infectious, often fatal disease, usually occurring in the summer months, characterized by intestinal inflammation and ulceration. The name came from the disease's similarity to typhus (see below). Synonym: Enteric fever.

Typhus: An acute, infectious disease transmitted by lice and fleas. The epidemic or classic form is louse borne; the endemic or murine is flea borne. Synonyms: typhus fever, malignant fever (in the 1850s), jail fever, hospital fever, ship fever, putrid fever, brain fever, bilious fever, spotted fever, Petechial fever, camp fever.

Variola: smallpox.

Venesection: Bleeding.

Water on brain: Enlarged head.

White swelling: Tuberculosis of the bone.

Winter Fever: pneumonia.

Womb fever: Infection of the uterus.

Worm fit: Convulsions associated with teething, worms, elevated temperature or diarrhea.

Yellow fever/Yellowjacket: An acute, often fatal, infectious disease of warm climates, caused by a virus transmitted by mosquitoes.

Some of the above has been compiled by Lorine McGinnis Schulze of
Olive Tree Genealogy in 1996 and we thank her for permission to use those definitions here

In case you ever wondered why a large number of your ancestors disappeared during a certain period in history, this might help. Epidemics have always had a great influence on people - and thus influencing, as well, the genealogists trying to trace them. Many cases of people disappearing from records can be traced to dying during an epidemic or moving away from the affected area. Some of the major epidemics in the United States are listed below.

1657 Boston: Measles
1687 Boston: Measles
1690 New York: Yellow Fever
1713 Boston: Measles
1729 Boston: Measles
1732-33 Worldwide: Influenza
1738 South Carolina: Smallpox
1739-40 Boston: Measles
1747 Conn, NY, PA & SC: Measles
1759 North America (areas inhabited by white people): Measles
1761 North America & West Indies: Influenza
1772 North America: Measles
1775 North America (especially hard in New England) - Epidemic (unknown)
1775-76 Worldwide: Influenza (one of worst flu epidemics)
1783 Delaware (Dover) "extremely fatal" bilious disorder
1788 Philadelphia & NY: Measles
1793 Vermont: Influenza and a "putrid fever"
1793 Virginia: Influenza (killed 500 people in 5 counties in 4 weeks)
1793 Philadelphia: Yellow Fever (one of worst)
1793 Pennsylvania (Harrisburg & Middletown) many unexplained deaths
1794 Philadelphia: Yellow Fever
1796-97 Philadelphia: Yellow Fever
1798 Philadelphia: Yellow Fever (one of worst)
1803 New York: Yellow Fever
1820-23 Nationwide: "fever" (starts on Schuylkill River, PA & spreads)
1831-32 Nationwide: Asiatic Cholera (brought by English emigrants)
1832 New York & other major cities: Cholera
1837 Philadelphia: Typhus
1841 Nationwide: Yellow Fever (especially severe in South)
1847 New Orleans: Yellow Fever
1847-48 Worldwide: Influenza
1848-49 North America: Cholera
1850 Nationwide: Yellow Fever
1850-51 North America: Influenza
1852 Nationwide: Yellow Fever (New Orleans 8,000 die in summer)
1855 Nationwide (many parts) Yellow Fever
1857-59 Worldwide: Influenza (one of disease's greatest epidemics)
1860-61 Pennsylvania: Smallpox
1865-73 Philadelphia, NY, Boston, New Orleans, Baltimore, Memphis & Washington DC: A series of recurring epidemics of Smallpox, Cholera, Typhus, Typhoid, Scarlet Fever & Yellow Fever
1873-75 North America & Europe: Influenza
1878 New Orleans: Yellow Fever (last great epidemic of disease)
1885 Plymouth, PA: Typhoid
1886 Jacksonville, FL: Yellow Fever
1918 Worldwide: Influenza (high point year) More people hospitalized in World War I from Influenza than wounds. US Army training camps became death camps - with 80% death rate in some camps. Finally, these specific instances of cholera were mentioned:
1833 Columbus, OH
1834 New York City
1849 New York
1851 Coles Co, IL
1851 The Great Plains

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