Thursday, May 1, 2008

Dropsy, and Researching Other Archaic Medical Terms

Put Dropsy in Yahoo search and you’ll likely end up with the latest news in aquarium maintenance, which is great, if you need to know what’s ailing your sick goldfish. The search results aren’t nearly as helpful if you were trying to find out what dropsy is because you learned your great-great grandfather died from it.

For genealogists and those researching their family medical history, there are a number of resources that offer information about outdated medical terms. One such source is the Encyclopedia of Genealogy, a free to use collaborative encyclopedia. When I typed in dropsy in their search box, the following was returned.

“Dropsy, now known as edema, is a condition of excess watery fluid in the tissues or cavities of the body; also congestive heart failure from whatever cause.”

While their definition is a little vague, it’s a good starting point. From this information you could ascertain that your great-great grandfather suffered from fluid build up somewhere in his body. But, if your anything like me, that little bit of information wouldn’t be enough to satisfy curiosity. I found a reference to dropsy on that was a bit more descriptive, which explains that dropsy is a symptom rather than a cause of disease.

Speaking of symptoms rather than causes, when it comes to terminology of the past, a great deal of reading between the lines is necessary. Causes of death given within the limited scope of our ancestors’ knowledge of disease and illness can often require more than a simple translation from old to new lingo. For instance, we now know dropsy to be edema, and the term on it’s own might suggest an ancestor’s heart condition. But, terms like, “dropsy of the brain,” were also used in times past. If we think of dropsy as excess fluid, or edema, we know that dropsy of the brain might be what we refer to as encephalitis, today. In fact, not only was dropsy used as a general term meaning edema, but also a specified region in the body was given along with it, providing better clues to the actual condition the person suffered from, in today’s terms. I looked extensively within genealogy resources on the web for glossaries of archaic medical terms, and I found many of them, but most that I found did not provide sources for the information therein. After a whole lot of searching on the Internet, a website turned up that provides a wealth of information on outdated medical terms (listing sources.) On the home page of Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms: The Genealogists Resource for Interpreting Causes of Death, the following is stated on the home page.

“Antiquus Morbus is a collection of archaic medical terms and their old and modern definitions. The primary focus of this web site is to help decipher the causes of death found on mortality lists, certificates of death and church death records from the 19th century and earlier. This web site will be updated often and as new information is received. My intention is to collect and record old medical terms in all European languages. The English and German lists are the most extensive to date.”

If you’re looking for information about a cause of death of an ancestor, be it dropsy, consumption, typhoid, or putrid flux, you name it, you’ll find it in Rudy’s Glossary. The web site also offers an extensive collection of facts about alcohol and drug related illnesses pertaining to outdated terminology.

Note: For the record, I have no medical background. The article here is not intended to provide proper medical information; it is meant to be a resource for genealogists researching causes of death.

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