Book Review: How Our Ancestors Died-A Guide for Family Historians by Simon Wills

How our Ancestors Died: A guide for Family Historians by Simon Wills

How Our Ancestors Died: A Guide for Family Historians. By Simon Wills. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK www.pen-and-sword.co.uk. £14.99. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. www.casemateipm.com. $29.95. 2013. 214 pp. Softcover. Illustrations, index.

Mr. Wills, is a genealogist, journalist and regular contributor to genealogy magazines. Professionally he works as an information specialist, writer and advisor to the National Health Service and healthcare organizations. That experience in the healthcare industry clearly shows in this excellent guide to how our ancestors died.

The book is divided into 27 chapters with the opening chapters addressing the causes, diagnosis and treatment of illness and how that has evolved over time. For the family historian the places where a cause of death might be found is helpful to get one thinking of where to look – death certificates; registers of deaths abroad and at sea; obituaries; coroner’s inquests and legal proceedings; registers of parish burials; memorials and gravestones; newspapers; hospitals, workhouses and asylums; military records; employment records; specific medical problems; and epidemic statistics. Attention is given to records of accidents and disasters.

The remaining chapters in the book examine, in alphabetical order, major causes of death, such as: alcoholism; cancer; chest conditions; cholera; dysentery and bowel infections; execution and murder; influenza; plague; pregnancy and childbirth; scurvy; smallpox; tuberculosis; typhoid; venereal diseases; and more. For each of the medical problems there is a description of the symptoms, and how it was treated over time, bloodletting and purgatives being common for all sorts of ailments.  The true cause of a medical problem might take years to discover, or it may be discovered and the medical profession because of vested interests or disbelief may ignore the cure (e.g scurvy, cholera).

When appropriate if there are specific locations or time periods when deaths occurred in significant numbers these are noted, so we learn about famines, plagues, and epidemics. This is helpful if you want to know, for example, if your ancestor’s cholera death was an isolated incident or part of a larger outbreak. The book also helpfully highlights some geographical specific medical issues such as: Devonshire colic resulting from drinking cider made in lead containers – died out by the end of the eighteenth century; or “Derbyshire Neck” from a lack of iodine in the soil, with a lack of iodine stopping the human thyroid gland from working resulting in a large swelling under the chin (goiter) – resulting in adults often being slow in movement and thought.

This is an excellent resource for putting your ancestor’s ailments into perspective, understanding the symptoms, how it was treated, whether it was contagious creating fear in the family and community, and when and how the ailment was eventually treatable or cured through modern medicines. This is a guide you will use, rather than doing online searches which give you all the modern treatments for an ancestor’s ailment.

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