Cause of Death: Before Antibiotics and Vaccines

The first smallpox vaccine was developed in 1796. The Egyptians had a practice of applying a poultice of moldy bread to infected wounds, but penicillin as a antibiotic wasn’t developed until 1928. The late 1800’s saw the development of vaccines for cholera, rabies, tetanus, and bubonic plague. More on this timeline of vaccines.

I have a Death Binder which is a collection of all the death certificates for my parents, grand-parents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents. [I also keep copies in the appropriate family binders.] It may seem a bit morbid but my doctor’s find it fascinating. I find it very informative to look at the causes of death and the age at death holistically as well as individually. I have death certificates for all 8 of my great grandparents and 12 of my 16 great-great grandparents. For the remaining 4, I have causes of death for all but 2. One cause of death is from an obituary and one from the Mortality Schedules. I have two additional death causes for 3rd great grandfather’s one from early Sexton’s records in 1845 and the other from family stories. I may have others further back [a future project?]. Sometimes we can surmise the cause of death when a mother died shortly after giving birth or a man who succumbs to wounds during a war. But sometimes we will never know.

What prompted me thinking about this was current conflicts over science, medicine and vaccines. I got to thinking who died the youngest and would have lived, with the help of antibiotics and modern vaccines. The most common cause of death in my tree is Arteriosclerosis or Heart disease including 3 of my 4 grandparents. No antibiotics or vaccines for that yet! There are several cancers, one each of: lung, pancreas, lip and spine. Of my great grandparents only one died of a condition, treatable with antibiotics. Lucy Jane FRANKLIN died of “Terminal pneumonia” but she had more than 10 years of asthma when she died in 1939 at the age of 63. My 2nd great grandfather James Lewis PADEN also died at 63 from Pneumonia in 1903. Today we have several pneumonia vaccines that likely would have saved their lives. The first was developed in 1977. My 2nd great grandfather William Marsh FRANKLIN died of “Senility” with contributory “probably Tuberculosis” which he may have contracted during the Civil War. The first Tuberculosis vaccine was in 1921.

of The saddest and the youngest was my 2nd great grandmother Mary Ann “Polly” (SPARKS) HENAGER who died at 40 of Typhoid Fever according to the Morality census in 1870. Typhus is caused by the salmonella typhi from ingesting contaminated food or water. In the early 1900’s there were tens of thousands of cases with a fatality rate of about 20%. The first typhoid vaccine was developed in 1896, too late for Polly. In this country you seldom hear of it due to improved food and water sanitation, thanks to Science, and government saftey regulations of food and water.

Mary A. Henegar 1870 Adair Co., KY Mortality Schedule

Then we have two who died of Bronchitis: Charles Gustvaus VANSTRUM, 78, died in 1907 and Rachel (SMITH) SHELDON 54, died in 1876. Would modern medicine have helped them? Probably. Then there is my 2nd great grandfather Elmer SHELDON who died at 79 of “Malarial Fever and Malarial Dysentery” in 1898. He surely could have been helped by antimalarial drugs and antibiotics. My 3rd great grandfather died of lip cancer Alexander PADEN at 80 in 1887. Another 3rd great grandfather, John L. MOSER, died just 2 days after his 45th birthday of “Quinsey” AKA Tonsillitis and tragically, his brother Joel MOSER, 50, died just over a week later of “Lung fever” AKA Pneumonia. Both highly treatable with modern antibiotics. This was in 1845 and is as listed in the Cemetery Records of William D. Huntington, Nauvoo Sexton [Hancock CO, IL].

And finally my favorite cause of death belongs to my 2nd great-grandfather John Wesley Williamson MOSIER who died at 89, in 1915. He died of “Old Age.” Not sure there’s a drug or treatment for that!

John Wesley MOSIER Death Certificate Feb 20, 1915

Of the death records I have, my youngest direct ancestor to die was Mary Ann “Polly (SPARKS) HENAGER at age 40 and the oldest was Johan Solomon LUNDBERG who was 92. Do you have the death certificates or records for your family members? Do you see any patterns? How many of your ancestors may have lived longer if they had received vaccines and antibiotics? Time to dig out the records and see what patterns you might find, and how they may inform your health.

Do not complain about growing old. It is a privilege denied to many.” Mark Twain

Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021 All RIghts Reserved

2 Comments on “Cause of Death: Before Antibiotics and Vaccines”

  1. Dear Kelly
    And they keep coming! If that was a rabbit hole it is a really thought provoking one. Should be seen by all the anti-vaccinators! As always, very interesting to read…and a really unusual topic to investigate. Can’t say I have that many certificates…and no idea where else I could find such information. I have certificates for my mother and father (2), my mother’s mother and father (2) and the next generation back for both of them (4),,,,my father’s mother and father (Charles George) (2)….and then going back on Charles George 3 generations (3) so I think that makes about 13. Nowhere near as many as you!

  2. It certainly helps to see from past records what family members died from to be forwarned is to be fore armed. I noticed after starting genealogy research for my husbands family that he came from a branch line of Barfords that died quite young from heart attacks but also weirdly seemed to marry women who were older than themselves although they lied about their age on marriage certificates only had about three children then the woman had to actually go out to work to keep the family going solo Mums from way back was this natures way of looking after the children I wondered?

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