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.


Links, 10.11.10

Today, as you probably know, is Columbus Day. But you may not know that it is also author Elmore Leonard‘s 85th birthday. Plus, I was amused to learn that it is the launch of “winter coat season“, at least according to stylists who say buying a new winter coat annually is a must, lest one’s look become tired. (They don’t say what to do when your wallet becomes tired, though. )

More important, if you’ve planned a long-weekend getaway to a city that houses a National Archives repository and were thinking of stopping by, don’t forget they’re closed today, along with many other libraries and archives — check before you go!

Italian ancestry: October is Italian-American Heritage Month, and if it turns your attention toward exploring Italian roots, here’s a nice collection of articles from the Family Tree Magazine archives. (Some of them are Plus Edition; full text available to subscribers only.)

Disastrous knowledge: At JewishGen Blog, Ann Rabinowitz writes about famines and famine relief in Part Four of an interesting series on disasters and their bearing on genealogy.

Internet doubts: In the Victoria (TX) Advocate, columnist Martha Jones considers what is lost and what is gained in the age of quick online database access to census records. Her point: Convenience is gained; context may be lost.  “I have come to realize that even though researching census records through microfilm reels took hours and hours, as a genealogist, I could begin to find the ‘flavor of the community’ in those pages of yore.”

Internet togetherness: Across the continent from Jones, Montreal writer Danielle Murray takes a more benign view of the Internet age, focusing on its ability to reconnect distant relatives. She contrasts her fascination with people-finding to the traditional genealogy practiced by her Uncle Milt: “Uncle Milt was a true genealogist — he went backward. I, on the other hand, have searched sideways. He hunted the dead; I’ve gone after the living. I don’t know if there’s a name for that.”

Read it forward: I love this post at Roots and Rambles on “reading history forward“; it explores the contrast between experiencing historic events in real time and recounting them decades after the fact in a history book, and considers what that means as we piece together family history.

Have a great week — and a great holiday, if you’re lucky enough to get today off!

The Unrecorded Past

Writing family history would be a heck of a lot easier if our forebears just thought a bit more of themselves. Those of us related to prominent individuals are lucky: The big cheeses of the world tend to leave more traces. They’re more likely to have thought their lives were worth recording for posterity. The little cheeses, not so much.

True, once in a while a non-royal, non-presidential family comes along that’s addicted to writing letters or keeping diaries, like the Paston family in 15th-century England.

But you don’t find Paston types growing on just any family tree.

And once in a while something comes along that is so big, and so universal, it sparks a correspondingly big and universal desire to bear witness. (Think of the Civil War era!)

Still, in between monumental military conflicts and the March 1887 coal invoice are all sorts of events that don’t rate a separate chapter in the history books. Nonetheless, they leave you wishing you could picture the part played by your long-ago relatives. File them under notable but not epochal, I suppose.

I’d love to know what my Capital District forebears were up to during these happenings, for example:

• The unrest at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. an outgrowth of the infamous 1863 draft riots in New York City.

• The great Troy fire of 1862.

• The Hudson River floods of 1913.

• And I wonder what they thought of Kate Mullaney, who organized the Troy laundresses into a force demanding better working conditions for the women and girls in the collar factories.

What history do you wish you could recover from your family tree?

In Which I Play The Ancestral Etiquette-Ologist

Editor’s Note: Every once in a while one sees something on a bulletin board or mailing list that makes one want to channel one’s inner Lady Bracknell, or at least one’s inner Miss Manners.

Gentle Reader:

Even in the freewheeling world of electronic communications, it is rude to respond: “Doubt I will attend this. … Nothing new to hear” to the announcement of an upcoming genealogy conference.

Opinion duly noted, however.


The Etiquette-Ologist

Links, 10.4.10

One of the perks of blogging is that one can just skip the introduction if one doesn’t have anything snappy to say. In fact, it is probably better to shut up if one doesn’t have anything snappy to say. Let the links speak!

Emerald Isle stuff: The National Library of Ireland has made several collections of vintage photos available online. Not sure how long they’ve been up, but they’re very interesting. Images date from the mid-19th century. (h/t to Bob Ryan of the NY-IRISH listserv) … Also, they write letters to the editor over there. Especially when they’re disgruntled at the service at the Irish Records Office. This one is a masterpiece of factual detail and polite contempt.

Wasteful or prescient?: There is criticism in Norfolk, Va. about hiring a cemetery records keeper for $42K annually when the city’s finances are strapped, as are many municipal finances nationwide. The city says the current system of index cards is falling behind. Critics say the records are in good shape due to the current efforts by a mix of city staff and volunteers. One can only hope the record keeping doesn’t fall by the wayside, however it ends up getting done.

Brick wall basics: I always like Martin Rigby’s columns in the Liverpool Echo. This time out he offers a clearly written primer on  attacking brick-wall problems. I wonder how often all the really obvious stuff has been tried before a brick wall is declared? I think I’ll use this article to make a checklist for myself.

Blog bits:

— Kimberly Powell tackles tombstone translations (and gives me a chance to alliterate away, while she’s at it).

— Sassy Jane blogs about the anatomy of a mistake. This sort of ‘fess-up is always incredibly helpful to read.

— Chris Staats uses a nifty construction analogy to sort out his arguments about Internet research, pro and con.

— At GeneaBloggers, a call for genealogy blog participation in Blog Action Day 2010: Water, with some intriguing prompts to get you going. Also via GeneaBloggers, we are reminded that the academic journal site SAGE Journals is offering free access until October 15 — a good chance to gather background on whatever esoteric question is on your mind.

I’m off to buy a pumpkin for the squirrels to attack. Hope you enjoy the week.

NewsClips: 1961: Another Year, Another Birthday Party Story

Today’s clip is another in a series of articles about birthday parties for my great-great Aunt Maggie (Haigney) Roache (or Roach, or Roche). I know — I think it’s a little odd myself, and I used to be in journalism and everything. What can I say; the Troy Times Record just kept covering her birthday parties. I’m beginning to get the feeling she was buddies with somebody on the city desk.

A few months ago I wrote about this article and did a partial quote of it, but to be thorough for my NewsClips project, I’m including the full text here. It’s another engagingly written story with charming details about Maggie’s feisty personality. However, as my notes indicate, it contains inaccuracies, too. You do have to be careful about newspaper stories. But they can be tremendously valuable in pointing out new avenues for research.

Mrs. Roach Notes 91st Birthday