Aug 4, 2023

Cause of Death

August 4, 2023

Genealogists are always interested in finding out what caused their ancestors’ deaths – especially if they were young when they died. I’m no exception to this rule, so when I discovered how many of my extended family had died as children and teens, I had to dig deeper.


As I researched, I realized that most of the early deaths in my ancestral families were caused by communicable diseases. Diseases such as measles, diphtheria, mumps, and smallpox claimed many of them. Thanks to vaccines, these diseases are seldom seen in the United States now.


Another communicable disease, typhoid, was the cause of death for at least seven of my relatives in the late 1800s and as recently as 1904. According to newspaper articles, several others suffered with typhoid but recovered.


Unlike many other communicable diseases, vaccines for typhoid are not routinely administered in the United States. After the early part of the 20th century, typhoid disappeared as a cause of death in my family lines. During my lifetime, I’ve never known anyone who had typhoid, much less died from it.


Typhoid is a bacterial disease that spreads through contaminated food and water. Once it becomes common in a population, it can also be spread through person-to-person contact. As public health measures became common in the 20th century, typhoid gradually died out. Sanitary disposal of human wastes as well as treatment of water to kill germs meant that fewer people contracted the disease and were able to pass it on.


Typhoid has been extremely uncommon in the U.S. since 1945. It is still endemic in parts of Asia and Africa, and travelers are advised to have vaccinations prior to visiting those areas.


For most Americans, typhoid is something that happened to our ancestors. As genealogists, it’s important to remember that it was once a serious threat, something that parents worried about whenever their children had a fever or a stomachache.


In earlier times, people often got their drinking water from local sources such as rivers or shallow wells or springs. None of the water was treated or even tested for contamination. It’s not surprising that typhoid was endemic. My mother was too young to have experienced typhoid herself, but I suspect the warning she gave to my siblings and me was a hand-me-down from the days when typhoid was endemic. “Never drink the creek or river water,” she’d say. “The people upstream throw their sewage and garbage into it. It’s dangerous.”


Mom was partly correct. Untreated river and well water is still unsafe to drink in most places in the United States. At least typhoid is one of the diseases that we probably don’t need to worry about contracting. Most of us, unlike our ancestors, have access to safer, more sanitary water.



Carol Stetser