Modern Names for Old Diseases

Posted June 26, 2015 by Amanda | 2 Comments

Did your ancestor die from bad blood? Or a fatty liver? Have you found yourself wondering what jail fever could be? Your ancestors’ cause of death can be found in several different historical records, including death certificates, obituaries and probate records. The names of many diseases vary over time and geographical location, so it’s not at all surprising to come across an unfamiliar cause of death or illness during your research.

Modern Names for Old Diseases

Image: Miami University Libraries

Check out these modern meanings to some common diseases that you may encounter:

  • Consumption – tuberculosis. It was given the name “consumption” due to the way the disease would consume its victims, with their weight dramatically dropping as the disease progressed. The disease was one of the leading causes of death during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Bad blood - syphilis.
  • Fatty liver – cirrhosis of the liver
  • Softening of the brain – stroke, brain hemorrhage or inflammation, dementia. This phrase was used to describe several different ailments related to the deterioration of the nervous system.
  • Falling sickness – epilepsy. The person would fall suddenly to the ground and experience varying episodes of seizures, from brief fits to prolonged and vigorous shaking.
  • King’s Evil - a form of tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes of the neck. Most common in childhood, it was believed during the Middle Ages that a royal touch could cure the disease. It was also known as Scrofula.
  • Dropsy – an archaic word for edema, dropsy was the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water.
  • Mortification – gangrene or necrosis.
  • Brain fever – meningitis or encephalitis. An inflammation of the brain.
  • Fits – seizures or convulsions, especially caused by epilepsy.
  • Quinsy – a complication of tonsillitis.
  • Jail fever – typhus.

What old, unfamiliar medical terms have you found in your genealogy research?

Post written by Amanda

Amanda is the Marketing Communications Manager at Geni. If you need any assistance, she will be happy to help!

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