Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Breaking the Medical Code: Understanding Outdated Medical Terminology

What to Do When “It’s All Greek” to You Medicine has always had its own specialized terminology for diseases and causes of death. While you may be familiar with some of the modern terms from ER and other TV shows, this guide can help you with terms that were common in past centuries by Donna Przecha.

Have you ever eagerly perused the death certificate of an ancestor looking for the cause of death only to find words that appear to be English but had no meaning to you in this context? On modern certificates we expect to see unfamiliar medical terms such as “myocardial infarction,” “carcinoma” or “arteriosclerosis.” A quick look at a dictionary or medical dictionary reveals that these are heart attack, cancer and hardening of the arteries. But what do you make of “dropsy,” “consumption,” “apoplexy,” or “softening of the brain?” Were these exotic diseases that have vanished from the face of the earth or do they have modern equivalents?

Archaic Names
Fortunately many have faced this problem and there are several places to look for modern translations including the Genealogy Glossary and Dr. Paul Smith’s exhaustive 26 page list. Modern medical names tend to be descriptive of how the affliction is operating in the body — such as auto immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Prior to the 19th century, doctors didn’t have lab tests, x-rays and autopsies to tell them what was really going on so the terms tended to describe symptoms they could observe or of which the patient complained. These are not precise diagnoses in the modern sense. It can be helpful to read the description on more than one list to get a better idea of what the doctors were observing.

Dropsy, also called edema, meant water retention and swelling. This isn’t too helpful as a cause of death, but such a symptom is often caused by heart or kidney problems. Consumption usually indicated tuberculosis, but it actually described a wasting away of the body, so it could refer to other illnesses. Apoplexy and softening of the brain both indicated symptoms of a stroke. Many diseases are accompanied by fever and so dozens of illnesses had “fever” in the name. This is not a family of diseases and the only thing any two might have in common would be a high temperature.

With some of the more common diseases, one almost has a complete description of the disease just from a list of names by which it was called.

by Donna Przecha

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