Gut Reactions: A 19th-Century Medical Adventure

I’ve blogged already about the Civil War pension records pertaining to Martin Haigney, my great-great-grandfather who served at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. Previously I wrote about the joys of discovery, the fun of organizing all that paperwork and the larger social implications of the pension system — all lofty, rewarding stuff.

Today, however, we descend into the bowels of the file. Literally.

It started at the dining room table, which was probably not the best place to be dissecting a Civil War medical record. Still, when I noticed not one, but four diagnoses of cholera in Martin’s medical history, I couldn’t help blurting out my astonishment.

“Cholera? What’s that? Is it serious? Do you throw up?” The eldest daughter suddenly lost interest in her cinnamon Pop-Tarts.

“Four times? That’s highly unlikely,” said Mr. Archaeologist, who in real life is an actuary and keeps track of statistics and stuff.

“Shush, you two,” I said, re-checking the page. [Note: Mr. Archaeologist is a casualty actuary, not a life actuary, so it was OK to shush him. -- Ed.]

Yes, there it was on the record, four times. Here is the transcribed list from a War Department memo of 24 January 1899:

  • Aug. 7 to 9 54, Cholera Morb.;
  • Sept. 18 to 20, 54, Diarrhea;
  • Mar. 5 to 8, 55, Pneumonia;
  • Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, 57, Sick;
  • Nov. 13 to 15, 57, Influenza;
  • Aug. 16 to 19, 59, Cholera Morb.;
  • Aug. 8 to 12, 60, Diarrhea;
  • Sept.  6 to 9, 61, Cholera Morb.;
  • Nov. 2 to 4, 61, (no diagnosis);
  • Aug. 20, 62, Diarrhea;
  • Feb. 2 &3, 64, Diarrhea;
  • Mar. 17 to 30, 64, Measles;
  • June 9 to 11, 64, Diarrhea;
  • Aug. 5 to 7, 64, Dysentery;
  • Jan. 23 to 29, 65, Tonsillitis;
  • July 11 to 12, 65, Diarrhea;
  • Jan. 5 to 12, 66, Dysentery;
  • June 29 to July 1, 66, Rheumatism from exposure to cold & rain, ret’d to duty as – Hagney, Corp[? illegible];
  • July 24 to 26, 66, Cholera Morbus;
  • Jan. 19 to 21, 67, Lumbago, ret’d to duty;
  • Nothing further found

“Eeeww,” said the eldest daughter, who had managed to finish her Pop-Tarts anyway.

“That’s some gut,” said Mr. Archaeologist brightly. [Note: Actually, his comments have been somewhat edited -- Ed.]

Indeed. But what was going on with all those reports of cholera? Everyone knows how how swiftly cholera claimed its victims. From what I’ve read, it was possible to survive it back in the day, once. But to have it four times and live to get a pension? C’mon.

It turns out this is a classic example of reading a 19th-century list with 21st-century eyes. The clue is in the fourth instance, where the diagnosis is spelled out as “cholera morbus.” A quick Google led me to the Wikipedia entry on gastroenteritis, where my mystery was solved, although I had to scroll to the bottom of the entry for the payoff.

Before the 20th century, the term “gastroenteritis” was not commonly used. What would now be diagnosed as gastroenteritis may have instead been diagnosed more specifically as typhoid fever or “cholera morbus”, among others, or less specifically  as “griping of the guts”, “surfeit”, “flux”, “colic”, “bowel complaint”, or any one of a number of other archaic names for acute diarrhea. Historians, genealogists, and other researchers should keep in mind that gastroenteritis was not considered a discrete diagnosis until fairly recently.

The listing of my great-great-grandfather’s ailments certainly seems to point to a chronic gastrointestinal condition. Or maybe to a chronically compromised drinking water supply.

So consider “cholera morbus” your archaic diagnosis of the day. And since I’m feeling generous, here’s an extensive list of archaic disease terminology to consult at your leisure.

I recommend waiting until after breakfast, however.




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