Cause of Death: Senility?

Lately I’ve been obsessed with death certificates. Apparently, I’m not alone. A recent family history trend involves mapping causes of death within a particular line and noting patterns. Whether it be cancer or heart disease, such patterns pave the way for more detailed family medical histories.

As you probably know, death certificates often use archaic or peculiar terms to describe the cause of death. For example, here is the death certificate of my second great grandmother, Katherine Sarah Perkes (May 12, 1861 – September 7, 1957).

Death Certificate

As you can see, “senility” is listed as the cause of death. In 2016, when we hear the word “senile,” we usually think of someone who has lost his or her mental capacity. However, use of the word has changed throughout the years, and the attending physician who signed Katherine’s death certificate probably meant she had died from old age (Katherine was 96 years old!). In fact, “senility” was frequently listed as the cause of death when the deceased was elderly and no apparent disease or condition contributed to death.

As you search your ancestors’ death certificates, you may see the terms “senile decay,” “senile dementia,” or “senile insanity.” In those instances, it is highly likely that the deceased had been suffering from diminished mental capacity due to old age.

Have you come across other interesting causes of death? Here is a short list of terms I found fascinating:

  • Ablepsy: blindness
  • American plague: yellow fever
  • Bad blood: syphilis
  • Bladder in throat: diphtheria
  • Brain fever: meningitis
  • Cachexy: malnutrition
  • Camp fever: typhus
  • Dropsy of the brain: encephalitis
  • Falling sickness: epilepsy
  • Flux of humour: circulation
  • Grocer’s itch: skin disease caused by mites in sugar or flour
  • Inanition: physical condition resulting from lack of food
  • King’s evil: tuberculosis of neck and lymph glands
  • Milk sickness: disease from milk of cattle that had eaten poisonous weeds
  • Nervous prostration: extreme exhaustion from inability to control physical and mental activities
  • Nostalgia: homesickness
  • Pott’s disease: tuberculosis of spine
  • Quinsy: tonsillitis
  • Remitting fever: malaria
  • Scirrhus: cancerous tumors
  • Stranger’s fever: yellow fever
  • Summer complaint: diarrhea, usually in infants caused by spoiled milk

For more terms, click here.

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