Victorian diagnoses – medical complexities and vagueries

Seven medical conditions humourously illustrated. Reproduction of an etching. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

One of the advantages of working on archaeology from the colonial period is that we have historical records that help us to interpret what we’re seeing in the bones, teeth and artefacts associated with people. Some of the most useful things for those of us that study the skeletal remains are death certificates. Knowing what diseases might have been present in the population helps us to interpret signs of disease in the bones. But sometimes interpreting the doctors’ diagnoses is easier said than done…

For example, as we’ve discussed before, our team is quite interested in how tuberculosis might have affected the people of colonial New Zealand. It’s one of the diseases that had a massive effect on Māori, possibly because the Pākehā brought a new strain of it into the country. In terms of helping us to understand modern tuberculosis in New Zealand it would be useful to know about its history…but it’s hard to tell how many colonists had it!

In the death certificates from Milton alone possible tuberculosis is called eight different things (Tuberculosis, tubercular meningitis, gangrene of the lung, consumption of the lung, psoas abcess, haemopthisis, tabes misonterica and (most commonly) pthisis). All these fancy words might be versions of the same thing or they might not be tuberculosis at all. The colonists didn’t have any way to test for the actual tuberculosis microbe or previous exposure until 1890 when Robert Koch developed a skin test that would say for sure it was there. All this confusion means we can use the death certificates to give us clue about people’s symptoms but we can’t use them as definite evidence for cause of death.

Especially since some of the diagnoses in the death certificates are wonderfully vague! The more we research the more strange sounding diseases we find. So for this blog post we’re sharing some of the most ‘interesting’ causes of death written down by the colonial doctors/coroners that we’ve found in the St. John’s sample and in the wider Otago region…

Published list of the causes of death in Dunedin for 1858 (Otago Witness, 22nd January 1859, Issue 373, accessed via Papers Past)

Natural Decay – At least one individual in Milton died of this vague sounding disease. It’s open for interpretation what was actually the cause of death in this case, at the moment we’re assuming it just means ‘old age’.

A Debilitating Illness/Debility – I guess the coroners were just really stumped by this one. But relatives of the one individual in our Milton sample who died of debility seem to have had a form of tuberculosis. We’re betting for them their ‘debilitating illness’ was also a form of tuberculosis.

Softening of the Brain – Another confusing one! This could refer to any number of things, including dementia, tertiary syphilis (and its effects on the brain), or issues associated with strokes.

Death by mortification – not actually being embarrassed to death, although it sounds like it. This usually refers to gangrene causing a bit of the body to ‘mortify’. No-one in our cemetery samples has a death certificate recording mortification, but the Milton town doctor, Gustav Weber (who is in our cemetery population), once had a patient die of mortification in his care.

Account of the death of a Waihola resident from mortification from the Bruce Herald (4th September, Volume VI, Issue 434. Accessed via Papers Past) .

Death by toothache – we’ve covered before how dental health can have big impacts on your overall health, and the papers of colonial Otago are full of death notices relating to toothache (and dental care gone wrong!). We don’t think of toothache as a thing you can die of today but back in the day tooth problems really could be the death of you.

Account of a toothache-based death republished in the Bruce Herald (20th September 1866, Volume III, Issue 168, accessed via Papers Past)

Death from bad-temper/hysteria/fright – Colonial doctors were easily persuaded to put women’s deaths down to their temperaments. As the weaker sex, women were clearly prone to fright, bad temper or hysteria (*views of the time, certainly not the views of this blogger*). Strangely, the male doctors of the time hardly ever decided that the men in their care had died of such complaints!

Bad tempered women beware – it could be the death of you! From the North Otago Times (11th May 1875 volume XXI, issue 1066, accessed via Papers Past)
Headline news in the Evening Star (4th July 1879, Issue 5095, accessed via Papers Past)

There are so many more weird and wonderful medical terms that we’ve found while researching. We don’t have time to go into all of them in this blogpost – we haven’t even mentioned the half-stories we get from of causes of death like “death from the effects of falling in a pot” (a real story we found in the Otago Witness). Let us know if you’d like more diagnosis stories in future blog posts!

Charlotte King, 3rd October 2019

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