Medical Terms as found in the genealogical record

Submitted by Bill Walker,  (as published in the July/August 2012 issue of the “The Genealogical Record - Strafford Co, NH 49  VOL. 35, NO.4)


Some names for diseases changed over the years

By Ed Wentworth, # 250 


When we read in old records or letters the names of diseases from which people died, we aren’t always getting the real cause of death but an educated guess-and sometimes not even that.  Medicine in colonial times and during the 19th century was an inexact science at best, especially in smaller towns and cities. Obvious symptoms often were the only criteria used to decide the disease or condition. It seems as if almost any condition causing a wasting-away of a person was called consumption, known to us today as tuberculosis. Or if someone had symptoms of rheumatism, with the usual swollen joints and a higher than normal temperature, they often were said to have died with “rheumatic inflammatory fever.”


Also prevalent in old records are words explaining the severity or length of various illnesses. There often are references to “quick consumption” or “lingering consumption,” letting us know how long the person suffered. Sometimes there are words used that seem to have had no real meaning now or in past years, such as in Enoch Place’s journals when he wrote that a person died of “black measles.” I could not find a listing for such a disease. Some explanations of diseases simply leave us still wondering: she died of “a hip complaint,” or “a bowel complaint,” or maybe a “malignant fever.”

Listed below are some of the common “old” disease names and conditions, along with the name we give them today (or an explanation of the symptoms), taken from various medical and on-line sources. Answers in parenthesis are a guess on my part.


Ague       -Recurring fever and chills; symptom of malaria

Aphonia      -Laryngitis

Aphtha     -[See Thrush], usually in infants or the elderly

Apoplexy     - Paralysis due to stroke

American plague      -Yellow fever

Bad Blood     - Syphilis

Bilious fever      -term loosely applied to intestinal and malarial fevers.

Bladder in throat     -Diphtheria [Seen on death certificates]

Bloody Flux     -Dysentery involving discharge of blood; bloody stools

Brainfever     - Meningitis

Carolias dilatation     - (May have some connection to liver disease or obstruction)

Catarrh     -Inflammation of the mucous membrane with profuse running of the eyes and nose

Child Bed fever     -infection following birth of a child

Chincough     - Whooping cough

Cholera Infantum     -a common, non-contagious diarrhea of young Children

Cholera morbus      -characterized by nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and high temperature.(Appendicitis?)

Congestion of the brain     -an excessive or abnormal accumulation of blood or other fluid

Consumption      - Tuberculosis

Corruption     -a general term for infection

Crampcolic     -Appendicitis

Croup     -Laryngitis, diphtheria, or strep throat

Cystitis      -inflammation of the bladder

Debility Weakness     - infirmity, lack of movement such as staying in bed

Decrepitude     -feebleness due to old age.

Dengue     -infectious fever endemic to Africa

Dropsy of the brain     -Encephalitis

Dropsy     -swelling [fluid retention], usually due to kidney or heart disease

Hydrothroax     -Dropsy in chest [See Dropsy]

Dyspepsia     - Heart attack symptoms such as indigestion and heartburn

Eclampsia     -used as a general term for convulsions

Erysipelas      -contagious skin disease, due to streptococci, with lesions and small sacs of fluid

Falling sickness      -Epilepsy

Fatty Liver      - Cirrhosis of liver

Felon     -infection on end of toe or finger

Fits      -sSudden attack or seizure of muscle activity

Flux     -excessive discharge of fluid or diarrhea

Frenchpox      -Syphilis

Gangrene      -death of tissue

Gravel      -kidney stones

Greatpox     -Syphilis

Glandularfever     - Mononucleosis

Greenfever      -Anemia

Heat     -Sunstoke

Hepatic congestion      -(probably to do with liver disease or condition)

Horrors     -Delirium tremens

Humor     -the term often used to mean blood

Hydrophobia     -Rabies

Impostume     -abscess

Infantile Paralysis      -Polios

Jail fever      - Typhus

Leucemia cystitis     -(may be a form of leukemia)

La grippe      -Influenza

Long Sickness     - Tuberculosis

Lues disease     -Syphilis

Lues venera     -Venereal disease

Lung Fever     - Pneumonia

Malignant fever     - Typhus

Mania      -Insanity

Marasmus      -chronic undernourishment

Milk Fever      -disease from drinking contamm

Mortification     -Gangrene; localized death of living issue

Necrosis     -mortification [death] of bones or tissue

Nephritis      -chronic inflammation of the kidney

Nephrosis     -kidney degeneration; swelling of tissues

Nervous Prostration     -extreme exhaustion, inability to control physical and mental activities

Non compos mentis     -not of sound mind [used today mostly as a legal term]

Oedema [Edema]     -fluid retention, dropsy

Oedema of glottis      -[Edema] Swelling caused by fluid accumulation in larynx

Palsy      -paralysis or uncontrolled movement of controlled muscles

Paroxysm     -convulsions

Pertussis      -Whooping cough

Phthisis      -wastingaway

Phthiriasis     -lice infestation

Podagra     -Gout

Puerperal     -Septieaemia

Puerperal Exhaustion     -death due to childbirth

Putrid Fever     -Diphtheria

Putrid sore throat     -acute form of ulceration, attacking the tonsils

Quincy, quinsy      -inflammation of tonsils; tonsillitis

Rose cold     -Hay fever or nasal symptoms of an allergy

Scarlatina     -Scarlet fever

Scherious     -fibrous tumor

Screws     -Rheumatism

Scrofula     -Swelling of lymph nodes

Scrumpox     -skin disease, impetigo

Scurvy     -lack of vitamin C; symptoms of weakness, spongy gums and hemorrhages under skin. Often seen on shipboard .

Septicemia     -Blood poisoning

Shakes     -Delirium tremens

Shipsfever     -Typhus

Shock      -Stroke

Spotted Fever     -either Typhus or Meningitis

Strangery     -rupture

Strangury     - painful urination

Summer Complaint     -Diarrhea, usually in infants

Suppurating     -discharge of pus

Swamp Sickness     -could be malaria, typhoid or encephalitis

Throat distemper     -Diphtheria or quinsy [See Quinsy]

Thrush     -a disease with whitish spots and ulcers in the mouth, tongue and throat, caused by a parasitic fungus

Tubercle    -small swelling or nodule

Tussis Convulsiva     -Whooping cough

Variola     -Smallpox

Winter fever     -Pneumonia 


All Published

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