GenMassachusetts-L ArchivesArchiver > GenMassachusetts > 1999-04 > 0925038426
From: "John F. Connors, Sr." <>
Subject: Re: Causes of Death
Date: Sun, 25 Apr 1999 07:07:06 -0400
> I would just caution people about the Causes of Death in old death
> As one who has filled out a number of these, even today the cause is a
> statistical guess in most cases. Also there is a tendency today to give the
> mechanism of death (cardiac arrest) rather than the disease process that lead
> to it. At best one can "translate" old medical terms to more modern ones but
> that doesn't mean the physician at the time was knowledgeable about
> pathophysiology of disease.
> While it is true that 19th century physicians were probably better at
> describing symptoms, for the most part diagnoses/diseases were more
> descriptive of the symptoms than pathologic for the disease process.
> Remember the germ theory wasn't postulated until the 1870s and probably not
> really accepted for another 30 years; the connection between chest pain
> (angina) and coronary artery disease and heart attacks not made until 1906
> (most deaths due to "acute indigestion" are myocardial infarctions).
> I certainly wouldn't want to use the causes of death on 18-19 century death
> certificates to try to construct a health history for my family unless there
> was a very specific and/or unusual condition with very clear symptoms.
> Example: Julia Ann (Cutter) Coburn died of "Insanity, Drowning". Now did
> she drown in circumstances that suggested mental illness or did they know she
> was mentally ill and drown? If so, did she commit suicide either way? Does
> this mean there is mental illness in the family? Perhaps, but what family
> doesn't have at least one member that would be viewed as eccentric at the
Perhaps she had epilepsy. In those days, it was seen as mental illness.
A seizure while swimming may have caused drowning.