Illnesses and accidents affected our ancestors in many different ways. Often health issues changed the course of their lives and the lives of their families. Without the benefits of modern medicine, what today would be a simple illness became a life or death struggle, often ending in an untimely death.
After being under the weather during May (nothing serious), I thought about the health conditions in my own family history and how those medical problems impacted their lives. There were epidemics, accidents, women who died young after having too many children and those assorted family illnesses your doctor asks about when taking your family medical history.
We rarely hear about epidemics these days due to better sanitation, monitoring and medical treatments. In the past epidemics caused panic and many deaths. In 1873 Asiatic Cholera swept through the small community where my family lived. A father and son who were working on railroad bridges across one of the many creeks, contracted the disease. Both men succumbed, one day apart. First the father, then the son. This son had survived wounds suffered at Malvern Hill where he fought for the Confederacy. He returned from the war, married and fathered two children. His untimely death left his twenty-three-year-old widow to raise their son and daughter alone. That son was my grandfather, the one I never knew. Cholera took his father and his grandfather when he was only four years old and had a lasting effect on his family.
The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed more people worldwide than died in World War I. Some call it a pandemic. Unlike today when the elderly and the very young are considered most at risk from the flu, in 1918 the flu struck healthy, young adults. My grandmother survived a bout of this virulent strain of influenza. Her mother, my great-grandmother, took primary responsibility for my mother, a baby at the time, so her daughter could recover. My mother always said her grandmother raised her. In her later years my grandmother was susceptible to pneumonia due to the scaring of her lungs caused by the flu.
Accidents also impacted our family. My husband’s grandfather died in an automobile accident coming home to Tennessee from Detroit to visit his family for Thanksgiving. He went to Detroit to earn enough to pay off the mortgage on the family farm. He had paid the debt, purchased a new car and planned to return to farm with his grandsons. The oldest grandchild, my husband was twelve and his brother was eleven. They lost the opportunity to work on the farm with their grandfather. Due to the determination of my husband, his father and siblings much of the place his grandfather worked so hard to keep is still owned by family.
When my grandfather was eighteen and working for the railroad, he caught his arm between the couplings of two cars. His mother recorded both the date his arm was mashed and the day after when it was amputated in the family bible, reflecting the importance of the event. Unable to do physical labor with only one arm, he had to find an occupation suitable for a one-armed man in the 1880’s and 90’s. Medical knowledge at that time ensured that the injury did not threaten his life. Years later his eleven-year-old daughter fell from the porch and sustained internal injuries. These injuries might have been repaired with modern surgery, but in 1914 medicine had not progressed enough to save her. She died of her injuries leaving a grieving family.
Doctors of the past couldn’t always diagnose an illness. One of my great-grand fathers became unable to work on the farm due to an unknown ailment. So he sold the farm sometime after 1900 and moved to another town along the railroad where his wife and daughters ran a boarding house. Had it not been for the illness the family would have remained on the farm and one of the daughters would not have run off and married to a man who lived in the boarding house.
For at least two women in our family, having too many children appears to have contributed to their early demise. My great-aunt married in 1900, had seven children and died in 1911, a month after the birth of her last child. She was only thirty-one years old. In my husband’s family his great-grandmother married at age sixteen, had nine children and died in 1919 at age thirty-nine. Her death certificate gives tuberculosis as cause of death with influenza as a contributing factor, another victim of the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. In the case of my great-aunt, her husband moved his in-laws in with him to help him raise his children. He later married his first wife’s sister, my grandmother. In my husband’s family, his great-grandfather only lived four years after his wife’s death. The older children then took the younger ones, eight and eleven, to raise. We will never know if these women would have lived longer if birth control had been available back then.
Discussions of illness and death can get pretty depressing, yet it can be important to our own health to know about the ailments of our family members. My paternal grandmothers had colon cancer so I have colonoscopies more often than most people. We’ve identified several members of my mother’s family who had Alzheimer’s, including my mother, so the horror of that dreadful disease looms over us. A stroke caused my grandfather’s death in 1955 and 41 years later my father died from a stroke. My aunt said my father’s death was almost identical to the way their father had died years before. So I watch the blood pressure and cholesterol. My husband developed diabetes which affected the lives of several members of his family. So even if it feels uncomfortable, we should all have those family discussions about illness and causes of death. It could save our lives.
No doubt modern medicine would have changed outcomes and changed lives. Some of us might not be here if outcomes had been different. Yet such intimate knowledge gives a humanity to the old family tree and allows us to see them as people, struggling and suffering just as we do. They continue to live through the family stories passed down from one generation to the next. And perhaps we will learn something about ourselves.