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Did your ancestors survive or succumb to epidemics?

April 13, 2010 at midnight
Updated April 13, 2010 at 11:14 p.m.


Genealogists research to discover names, dates, marriages, deaths and places where our ancestors lived during their time on earth.

We eagerly use this information to identify individuals and connect them with their families.

While gathering the data, we sometimes forget to check newspapers, death certificates, funeral home records and local area health reports for the multitude of diseases and epidemics that not only existed during their time, but also took the lives of many of our ancestors.

Some of the more common medical terms that appear in records are cholera, dengue fever, diphtheria, dysentery, influenza, malaria, measles, polio, smallpox, whooping cough and yellow fever.

In some deaths, the specific affliction may have gone undetected and was noted only as "fever."

In early colonial days, plagues were especially alarming because the outbreaks were not locally contained as in previous centuries. Instead they dispersed along the East Coast from such cities as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

The diseases spread quickly due to population increases, demographic changes, lack of sanitation and food preservatives, and increased contact between regions of the country due to trade and migrations.

Particularly vulnerable were young people, elderly, and people recovering from other illnesses. For more information, see "The Great Influenza: the Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History" by John Barry, M.D.

One of the most serious and devastating epidemics of yellow fever occurred in 1878. It began in the southern states and soon spread up the Mississippi Valley into the borders of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

People panicked at the rapid spread of the disease and lack of medical remedies. Records estimate that as many as 20,000 people succumbed to the disease, with nearly 6,000 of them in or near Memphis, Tenn. For more information, see "The Mississippi Valley's Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878" by Khaled J. Bloom.

Although death certificates were not required in most states until 1903, and obituaries were not common sources of information, researchers need to be aware of epidemics in a region during certain time periods.

If newspapers and other death records are not available, it is important to read social histories about the area during the time periods being researched. For more information, see Cyndi's List at www.cyndislist.com/medical.htm, click Epidemics and Plagues.

In 1918, the Spanish flu influenza pandemic spread across the world. Most victims were healthy young adults, in contrast to most influenza outbreaks that mostly affected juvenile, elderly or weakened patients.

It lasted from 1918 to 1920 and between 50 million to 100 million died, making it the deadliest natural disaster in human history.

When placing ancestors in context of time and place, historical timelines are helpful in clarifying and providing a framework for research.

If, for example, family members disappear from the records during a certain time period, an exploration of the history of the particular area will often provide as much information and insight as any genealogical pursuit.

In addition, it will offer researchers a far better understanding of the era, events, and places which affected our ancestors' lives.

Happy Researching.

E-mail genealogy queries to Martha Jones at mjones@vicad.com VCGS members will research queries requiring extensive study.

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