Glossary of Archaic Medical Terms

Medical science has advanced tremendously over the last few hundred years.  Many of the terms for diseases that were widespread in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are now relics of a bygone era.  While researching your ancestors, you may have run across references to archaic medical terms that you are unfamiliar with like: black pox, falling sickness or lung fever and needed a quick definition.

The solution may be to refer to the website Archaic Medical Terms for a comprehensive listing of archaic medical terms with their modern definitions.  The objective of this web site is to help genealogists and researchers decipher the causes of death found on mortality lists, death certificates and church records from the 19th century and earlier.

This website can be an invaluable asset for finding quick answers, just type the term into the Google search box at the middle of the page and see what comes back.  The Archaic Medical Terms website also offers options for downloading an electronic copy of their entire glossary if you prefer to use it as a desk reference.  These include downloading it electronically in PDF or Excel format or ordering it on CD or book form for a nominal fee.

Early Medical Science

In the early days of medicine, terms were created for conditions that doctors couldn’t fully explain. Frequently, they created terms that seemed to describe the symptoms they were witnessing such as spotted fever or white pox.  Often, medical professionals misunderstood what was causing diseases and were ineffective in their treatments. 

Basic knowledge that we take for granted today was yet to be discovered by our early medical pioneers.  For example, they failed to realize that sterilization of the doctor’s hands and medical equipment would help reduce the occurrence of infections by minimizing exposure to microscopic germs.  They did not realize that mosquitos spread malaria or that fecal bacteria getting into the water supply was causing massive Cholera epidemics in urban settings.

This lack of knowledge resulted in patients being treated for their symptoms, not the root cause (as the cause was unknown).  Unfortunately, this often lead to massive suffering and premature death.

Looking Up Archaic Medical Terms

So, if you find out your grandma Mildred died from “consumption” and you are curious about what that means, check the Archaic Medical Terms website to investigate.  By the way, “consumption” is an archaic name for tuberculosis which seemed to consume people from the inside with its symptoms of bloody cough, fever, pallor and long relentless wasting.

If you need help trying to make sense of your ancestor’s cause of death from a death certificate, you might consider reading the article Deciphering Death Certificate Causes of Death for helpful information on deciphering International Classification of Diseases (ICD) codes used on death certificates.  When a physician’s written diagnosis is illegible, these mysterious codes can help to shed light on the situation.

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