Tag Archives: Family Research

How to Understand the Cause of Death Listed on a Death Certificate Part 2

Understand Cause of Death Part 2

How to Understand the Cause of Death Listed on a Death Certificate Part 2

In Part 1 of this 2 part series I explained how to understand the cause of death also referred to as the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) code listed on your ancestor’s death certificate.

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) grew from the Bertillon classification system, there have now been 10 revisions since its original instatement.  So how did the ICD come into existence?  The city of Paris’ Chief Statistician, Jacques Bertillon propelled the need for uniform disease classifications in 1853.  By 1891, the International Statistical Institute (ISI) convened in Vienna and accepted Bertillon’s statistical list created to categorize the cause of death.  Jacques Bertillon later chaired the 1893 ISI Chicago meeting where he presented three lists.  One list cited 44 conditions (that caused death), the second list had 99 conditions, and the other list had 161 conditions.  Each condition had its own subdivision broken down and designated by an alphabetical letter.

You can take a look at the three lists or nomenclatures in the book Bertillon Classification of Causes of Death, on page 13.  He list well known diseases such as small pox, measles, and scurvy to the more obscure such as glanders and farcy, scrofula, Bright’s disease, Pott’s disease, white swellings, and metritis.  Pages 18 to 33 give definitions to many of the diseases listed in “nomenclature three.”

I was able to even place one of my ancestor’s death certificates in better context after looking up the cause of death in Bertillon’s book published in 1899.  Below is a screen shot of my ancestor’s death certificate from 15th July 1911.  Her place of death is listed as the Taunton State Hospital in Taunton, Massachusetts.  The cause of death is General Paralysis.  I found this death certificate to be curious so I started researching the Taunton State Hospital for this time period.

Annie Albin Death Cert

I found that the hospital was originally called the State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton and it was established in 1854.  The older parts of the building were demolished in 2009.  I also came across some hauntingly beautiful photos that can be found over at Abandoned America taken by Matthew Christopher.

I wanted to know more about this ancestor’s life and if she truly was someone that should have been placed in a lunatic asylum, so I looked her cause of death up in the 1899 Bertillon book and the Manual of the International List of Causes of Death Second Revision, Paris, 1909.  Remember from the previous post the second revision covers years 1910 to 1920.

The Bertillon Classification of Causes Of Death page 22

  • General Paralysis is listed as number 45 in the third nomenclature column. “ #45.     General Paralysis includes: general paralysis of the insane; paralytic insanity; paralytic dementia; paralytic cachexia; paralytic marasmus; diffuse-meningo encephalitis; diffuse periencephalitis.”

Manual of the International List of Causes of Death Second Revision, Paris, 1909, page 76:

  1. “General Paralysis of the insane: Alcoholic paralysis, Bayles’s disease, Chronic alcoholic paralysis, Dementia paralytica, Diffuse meningoencephalitis periencephalitis, General alcoholic paralysis, General paralysis (insane), Imbecile paralysis, Paralysis of insane, Paralytic cachexia, Paresis, Paretic dementia, Progressive dementia”

Both classifications do give more insight into this time period.  It is curious that encephalitis is listed with both of the general paralysis of the insane.  I believe it is more probable that my ancestor had contracted encephalitis and was not truly “insane” as the classification could lead one to believe.

Please keep on the lookout for my next post where I will discuss encephalitis and how the term “General Paralysis” could have been easily misinterpreted for “insane.”  Also please leave me your comments below.

How to Understand the Cause of Death Listed on a Death Certificate Part 1

How to understand Cause of Death Listed on Death Cert

“Death really is just a number, the International Classification of Diseases number.”

Sometimes when we find a Death Certificate we just find more questions.  Maybe the handwriting is not legible or the informant was a hospital worker. Yeah, like you’re gonna get any hard facts from the hospital worker that so thoughtfully asked about who your ancestor’s parents were.  If you are lucky, sometimes (depending on the year) you can get a hold of a death certificate that has the cause of death and a numerical code written all catawampus in the cause of death field.  The code or number is referred to as the International Classification of Diseases.  We are currently on the 10th revision so you may see people refer to it now as the ICD 10 code.

Looking this number up can give you more insight into the cause of death of your relative when you are performing genealogy research.  I’ve included an example below for more detail.  So what is the International Classification of Diseases and how did it come into existence?

The ICD codes were designed to create international uniformity for healthcare workers when they have to collect, process, classify, and present mortality statistics.  But we must go a little deeper down the rabbit hole and ask, “Why are death certificates so important?” “Or more so why must we keep track of disease classifications and death registrations?” Simply put, we must keep track of reoccurring epidemics.  Recall any of the historical cholera, plague, yellow fever, malaria, and small pox epidemics? Yeah, lets try and prevent those from happening again J

Death registration in the United States was mirrored after the English Registration Act of 1837.  Massachusetts was the first state to enact the registration law in 1842.  More states started to follow suit and by 1855 the American Medical Association pushed for more states to create offices specifically for the registration of vital events.  By the time 1900 had rolled around there were about 10 states that had complied with the U.S. Death Registration Area so they were able to start compiling the yearly mortality statistic reports.  By 1933 all states were on board with registration.

The ICD has been revised ten times, below is a list of revisions in relation to the years they apply to.  So if you have a death certificate from 1958 you’ll want to look into the ICD7.

Revision   Years
1st 1900-09
2d 1910-20
3d 1921-29
4th 1930-38
5th 1939-48
6th 1949-57
7th 1958-67
8th 1968-78
9th 1979-98
10th 1999-present

But what about before the 1900s in the United States, how can one understand that messy handwriting or the very archaic disease classification? Stay tuned for part 2 of this post.  Below is the example I promised.

I’ll use one from my family tree as an example.  My relative died 2 April 1955 on Highway 91 North Salt Lake, Utah in a motor vehicle collision.  The death was ruled an accident and the death certificate was filled out in depth so I really had no reason to look up the ICD code (see that letter and four digit number written in pencil below) yep E8161 is the ICD code used in this case.

Death Cert example

An easy way to look this code up is to go to HIPPASpace for ICD9 and ICD10 searches. The link will take you to the ICD9 version which occurred way after my relative’s death but it is still a useful quick link.

Type the code: E8161 in the “any search query” box and click Search.

The results that were returned back to me were:

ICD 9 example

So see here that the ICD9 code states that this accident occurred without a collision which I KNOW a collision with a truck did occur, so if I wanted more information I would look up the ICD6 for the correct year.

The http://www.wolfbane.com/icd/index.html website is another great resource for looking up the outdated codes.  Just follow the link and select ICD6, 4 digit code (because this is what correlates with my ancestor’s death certificate).  Search by using short cut keys “Crt and F” for control find.  Type in the code that is on the death certificate “E816” and search.

You should see this list:

ICD6 list

Please keep an eye out for part 2 of this series and as always leave me a comment below.