A Guide to Strange Historical Diseases and Mortality

OR, “Ye Olde Deaths in Times of Yore”

Genealogy research has forced me to brush up on my medical ailments of centuries past to understand what horrible diseases befell my poor ancestors. Physicians of yore had all sorts of colorful ideas and terminology relating to the body, and its functions and diseases. It’s been an unfortunate journey reading about pustules, limb loss, and rashes. Leeches. Bad milk. Dental abcesses that cause suffocation. Fellow amateur historians out there can appreciate the horror. It’s a damn disgusting treat that makes me really happy to be alive in modern times.

For those of you who haven’t enjoyed such research yet, you may have been taken aback by an image recently circulating around social media (Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, the usuals), listing the causes of death in London for the year 1632. It’s pretty perplexing, isn’t it? Quinsie? Planet? Fistula? I mean, CANCER AND WOLF?

And I won’t even begin to understand “Kil’d by Several Accidents”.

If you think you have the stomach for it, I invite you to read on for an explantion of strange historical diseases and casualties. I present to you, casual reader, as well as other genealogical researchers, Ye Olde Deaths in Times of Yore:

A-B

  • Ablepsia – Blindness.
  • Affrighted – As the name suggests, this poor soul probably suffered a shock that supposedly triggered a heart attack. Or, possibly, delirium.
  • Ague – Fever and chills. Could be an indication of malaria.
  • Ague-Cake – A swelling on the left side of the abdomen, possibly with a hard tumor. May result from spleen or liver enlargement or fevers.
  • Apoplexy and Meagrom – Almost certainly these people suffered fatal strokes. Apoplexy refers to the paralysis or loss of sense. Meagrom refers to sharp head pain.
  • AscitesSEE: Dropsy.
  • Bad Blood – Syphilis.
  • Bloody Flux, Flux – Diarrhea. Severe, perhaps bloody diarrhea. Often caused by a bacteria present in food and water contaminated by human waste.
  • Bone-Shave – Pain in the hips. Sciatica or hip-gout.
  • Breakbone – Contrary to first impressions, this is actually a term for Dengue fever.
  • Bright’s Disease – Kidney inflammation.
  • Bronze John – Yellow fever.
  • Bule – Boil or tumor.

C

  • Camp Fever – Typhus.
  • Cancer and Wolf – Wolf was, in fact, a zoomorphic term for cancer. Early physicians likened cancer to an animal eating away at the flesh. For that reason, “wolf”, while an apt term for cancer anywhere in the body, was most often applied to cancers of the leg, imagining that a wolf had bitten the victim and not let go.
  • Cattarh – Inflammation of various mucous membranes in the throat and head, possibly related to bronchitis or croup.
  • Childbed – Death during (or immediately following) childbirth.
  • Chorea – A disease that presents through convulsions, contortions, or “dancing”.
  • Chrisomes – Death of a young infant who was birthed alive, but perished before he/she could be Christened.
  • Colick – Abdominal pain and cramping, generally brought on by diseases of the bowels, kidneys, or stomach. Sometimes a sign of gallstones.
  • Commotion – Head injury, concussion.
  • Consumption – Tuberculosis.
  • Costiveness – Constipation.
  • Cut of the Stone – The patient underwent fatal surgery to remove gallstone or kidney stones.

D-F

  • Diary Fever – A fever that lasts only one day.
  • Dropsie (Dropsy) – Water collecting in the body in abnormal quantities, often due to heart failure or kidney failure.
  • Dry Bellyache – Lead poisoning.
  • Ecstasy – A seizure or trance, characterized by loss of reason.
  • Falling Sickness – Epilepsy.
  • Fistula – A sinus ulcer that can corrode flesh and bone.
  • French Pox – Syphilis.
  • Furuncle – A small painful tumor or boil under the skin.

G-L

  • Horrors – Delirium.
  • Impostume – This one’s gross. A pus-filled cyst or bag. So, a crazy infection.
  • Jail Fever – Typhus.
  • Jawfaln – A fallen jaw, likely lockjaw or tetanus.
  • King’s Evil – Either scrofula, which is throat lymph gland infection, or syphilis.
  • Lent-EvilSee: Ague.
  • Lues – Syphilis.

M-R

  • Meagrom – Severe headache. Possibly related to the modern word, “migraine”.
  • Nostalgia – Homesickness.
  • Overlaid and Starved at Nurse – Infant death caused by a wet nurse failing to feed the baby properly.
  • Planet – This is a tough one, because physicians back then believed that the planets and their forces affected health and well-being. These poor souls could have died of anything.
  • Purples – Usually purple blotchy spots on the skin that signal a high fever or strain. Possibly after childbirth.
  • Quinsie – An inflammation of the throat that can produce a suffocating abcess. Often caused by tonsilitis.
  • Rising of the Lights – Most common in infants and children, this is an illness of the respiratory system that might cause difficulty breathing, a barking cough, and other symptoms. Often a term referring to croup and asthma.
  • Rose Cold – Nasal symptoms resulting from allergy, hay fever.

S

  • Scaldhead – An infection of the head presenting as a scab.
  • Scowring – Diarrhea.
  • Screws – Rheumatism, including arthritis.
  • Stone – Likely a gallstone or kidney stone.
  • Stranger’s Fever – Yellow fever.
  • Summer Complaint – Diarrhea, typically in children due to spoiled milk.
  • Surfet – What we might today call “excess”. The deceased likely consumed something in fatal quantities.
  • Strangury – Pain or rupture in the urethra or bladder.

T-Z

  • Teeth – Generally an infection, possibly an abcess in the mouth that proves fatal.
  • Tissick – Lung disease that causes difficulty breathing and wheezing. May be related to asthma or tuberculosis.
  • Tympany – Swelling in the abdomen via the digestive tract that produced a hollow sound, like a drum, when tapped. Could be caused by infections or tumors.
  • Winde – A reference to painful flatulence, and likely relating to various diseases of the digestive tract.
  • WolfSEE: Cancer.
  • Worm Fit – Convulsions. May be caused by fever, diarrhea, worms, or even teething.