Tag Archives: Death History

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.