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Genealogy Resources

Health, Epidemics and Diseases

Most of our Old World ancestors lived their lives without ever seeing a physician.

Diseases, epidemics and pandemics have always been present in the world. You may well be able to associate epidemics or a series of diseases within your own family lines. You may notice "clusters of deaths," where several family members died within a short period of time. You may be able to see links with migration patterns from one location to another based on diseases. Such diseases may include tuberculosis (TB), influenza (flu), cholera, typhoid fever and other water borne diseases, and malaria.

The most prevalent diseases were scarlet fever, typhoid fever, measles, whooping cough, dysentery, consumption (tuberculosis), pneumonia, cancer, smallpox, and the plague.

You may also want to develop a medical history of your family, tracing diseases and other health problems that may have been transferred down through the generations.

In 1900, 18 percent of children in the U.S. died before age five. Physicians paid house calls to the wealthy, hospitals were places where one went to die, and most people relied on patent medicines such as "soothing syrups" containing morphine, heroin, opium, or laudanum. These were often addictive and didn't address the cause of the medical problem.

Epidemics of the US: 1702 Yellow Fever US*NY; 1702 Scarlet Fever US Boston; 1706 Yellow Fever US SC; 1713 Measles US Boston; 1721 Smallpox US Boston; 1723 Influenza WW; 1723 Famine UK*7 years poor harvests & epidemics; 1728 Yellow Fever US SC; 1729 Measles US Boston; 1732 Yellow Fever US SC; 1732 Influenza WW*; 1735 Diphtheria/scarlet fever US*4 yrs -New England; 1738 Smallpox US S. Carolina; 1739 Measles US*Boston; 1743 Yellow Fever US*NY; 1747 Measles US CT, NY, PA, SC;  1759 Measles US North America; 1761 Influenza US & West Indies; 1763 Smallpox US*Boston; 1772 Measles US; 1775 Influenza WW*; 1783 Bilious disorder US Fatal; 1788 Measles US PA, NY; 1789 Influenza US; 1792 Yellow Fever US*7 yrs; 1793 Unknown US PA; 1793 Influenza US Vermont, Virginia; 1802 Smallpox US Nebraska; 1803 Yellow Fever US NY; 1820 "Fever" US*; 1826 Cholera WW*1826-37; 1826 Dengue Fever US* and West Indies; 1829 Malaria US*; 1831 Cholera UK Started WW 1826; 1831 Cholera US*; 1832 Influenza US; 1833 Cholera US Ohio; 1834 Cholera US NY; 1837 Typhus US PA; 1837 Smallpox US Indians; 1841 Yellow Fever US; 1847 Measles US Indians; 1847 Yellow Fever US NO; 1847 Influenza WW*; 1848 Cholera WW*; 1850 Yellow Fever US; 1850 Influenza US*; 1850 Dengue Fever US*; 1851 Cholera US IL; 1852 Yellow Fever US NO; 1853 Cholera Birmingham? This came from a UK report with the ?; 1855 Yellow Fever US; 1857 Influenza WW*; 1860 Smallpox US* Pennsylvania; 1861 Epidemics US*Civil war numerous infectious diseases; 1865 Smallpox US*; 1865 Cholera US; 1865 Typhus US*; 1868 Smallpox US* 7 yrs; 1873 Influenza UK* N. America & Europe; 1873 Cholera US; 1878 Yellow Fever US NO; 1885 Typhoid US PA; 1886 Yellow Fever US FL; 1889 Influenza WW*; 1893 Polio US 1st known outbreak; 1900 Plague US*; 1901 Smallpox US*; 1907 Polio US* 9 yrs.; 1917 Influenza WW* Worst ever; 1931 Polio US; 1942 Polio US 11 yrs. (* - means the epidemic is spread over more than one year.)

  • Antiquus Morbus - The Genealogist's Resource for Interpreting Causes of Death. A glossary of archaic medical terms, diseases and causes of death in twenty-two different languages.
  • Archaic Medical Terms. A resource for genealogists and historians by Paul Smith.

  • Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1998.
  • Disease Chart

  • Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, ed. George Childs Kohn, revised edition. New York: Facts on File, 2001, 1995.

  • Historical Vital Statistics of the United States. The National Center for Health Statistics' Web site is a rich source of information about America’s health. As the Nation’s principal health statistics agency, it compiles statistical information to guide actions and policies to improve the health of its people. It is a unique public resource for health information–-a critical element of public health and health policy.
  • Hopkins, Donald R. The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History, with a New Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Iezzoni, Lynnette. Influenza 1918: The Work Epidemic in American History. New York: TVBooks, 1999.

  • Influenza Epidemic of 1918. World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world's population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history. The plague emerged in two phases. In late spring of 1918, the first phase, known as the "three-day fever," appeared without warning. Few deaths were reported. Victims recovered after a few days. When the disease surfaced again that fall, it was far more severe. Scientists, doctors, and health officials could not identify this disease which was striking so fast and so viciously, eluding treatment and defying control. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Others succumbed after a few days; their lungs filled with fluid and they suffocated to death. The plague did not discriminate. It was rampant in urban and rural areas, from the densely populated East coast to the remotest parts of Alaska. Young adults, usually unaffected by these types of infectious diseases, were among the hardest hit groups along with the elderly and young children. The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years.

  • Keating, John McLeod. A history of the yellow fever. The yellow fever epidemic of 1878, in Memphis, Tenn., embracing a complete list of the dead, the names of the doctors and nurses employed, names of all who contributed money or means, and the names and history of the Howards, together with other data, and lists of the dead elsewhere. Memphis, Tenn., Printed for the Howard Association, 1879.
  • Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Publishing, 1999.

  • McNeill, William Hardy. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976.
  • Medical Terms  Archaic medical terms.
  • Rothman, Shelia M. Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History. New York: Basic Books, Harper Collins Publishing, 1994.

  • Statistical Abstracts -1878 - 1900. United States Census Bureau.
  • "Your Family's Health History, An Introduction."  National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Special Issue, Vol. 82, No.2, June 1994. A guide to becoming a family health historian. Includes data on files of the Eugenics Record Office, medical holdings in the National Archives, umbilical lines, and the MtDNA Project, as well as a genetics resource guide.