Genealogy, Disease, Epidemics and Pandemics

Posted by on May 4, 2020 in Community & Family History | 0 comments

The following commentary recently came to my attention and got me thinking about the social context we need to consider when we add people to our family trees. Author unknown

“For a little step back right now, imagine you were born in 1900.

On your 14th birthday, World War I begins and ends on your 18th birthday. 22 million people are dying in this war. Later this year, a Spanish flu epidemic hits the planet and continues until your 20th birthday. 50 million people die in these two years. Yes, 50 million.

On your 29th birthday, the Great Depression begins. Unemployment is 25 %, world gross is down by 27 %. It lasts up to 33 years. The country is almost falling apart with the world economy.

When you reach 39, World War II begins.

On your 41th birthday, the United States is fully trained in World War II. Between your 39th and 45th birthday, 75 million people die during the war.

At the age of 50, the Korean War begins. 5 million are dying.

At the age of 55, the Vietnam War begins and doesn’t end for 20 years. 4 million people are dying in this conflict.

On your 62th birthday, you have the Cuban missile crisis, a turning point in the Cold War. Life on our planet, as we know it, should have come to an end. Great leaders have prevented this from happening.

When you reach 75, the Vietnam War finally ends.

Think of everyone on the planet born in 1900. How do you survive all this?

When you were a kid in 1985 and didn’t think your 85 year old grandparent understood how difficult school was. And how mean that kid in your class was. Yet they survived all of the above.

The perspective is an amazing art. Refined over time, and illuminating as you wouldn’t believe. Let’s try to keep things in perspective. Let’s be smart, let’s help each other and get through it all.”

Epidemics and Pandemics of the 1800s

This got me to thinking about diseases, epidemics and pandemics. What diseases did our ancestors encounter? What should we watch for as we record their deaths?

Joy Neighbours writes the weekly cemetery culture blog, A Grave Interest and speaks on history, genealogy and folklore around the country. Find her blog at , on twitter @aGraveInterest or Facebook at

On 6 Mar 2016 she wrote:

Epidemics were the scourge of the 1800s when bacteria and disease transmissions were not understood, and antibiotics weren’t yet in use. Those residing in port cities were extremely susceptible to epidemics, due to immigrants and ship hands that disembarked carrying infectious diseases.  

Here are five of the most prevalent diseases our ancestors had to contend with. 


Several cholera epidemics swept through Europe and North America during the 1800s, killing hundreds of thousands. The disease was extremely contagious and symptoms included violent cramping, vomiting and diarrhea, which brought about rapid dehydration and slowed blood circulation. A patient usually died within hours after the onset. Physicians of the time believed cholera was caused by contaminated water and filthy living conditions. 

Cholera Poster. Notices like this were widely posted. Note the emphasis on temperance.


The Asiatic flu took lives across the globe during the 19th century, spreading quickly from Russia into Europe and across the ocean to North America. Symptoms included headache, body aches, sore throat and a cough. The infection rate was high and the death rate was extreme. Although the spread of influenza was terrible during the 19th century, the worst influenza pandemic occurred during 1918 to 1919 when an estimated 50 million people died across the globe. 

Influenza occurrences appeared frequently, each time leaving a community devastated by the death of residents


Smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases known to man. What began as a rash with high fever and body aches led to blistering bumps on the skin, in the mouth and throat. A person with smallpox was contagious until the last blister was gone. About one-third of those infected died; others went blind, all carried the scars. One tiny ray of hope – once a person had smallpox they could not get it again. 

Inoculation for ‘Cow Pox’ was an early attempt to manage this disease.


Tuberculosis, or “consumption,” was one of the most feared diseases in the world during the 19th century. It was believed to have been a hereditary disease, not a contagious one. Symptoms included chest pains, fatigue, extreme weight loss and a racking cough that produced bloody phlegm. Very few ever recovered.  

From early days after settlement in Canada ‘consumption’ or tuberculosis was a frequent death sentence – often for several within a family group


Typhus was in epidemic proportions during the 19th century. In Canada in 1847, more than 20,000 people died from it. Many were Irish immigrants held in quarantine after arriving onboard “coffin ships.” These ships transported Irish passengers to Canada in order to escape the Great Irish Famine. But overcrowding on the ships, along with a lack of sanitation, decent food and clean water onboard, only aided the spread of the disease. Symptoms included a sudden fever, headache and chills before a rash covered the body. 

Some did not survive the ocean crossing, those who did were often very ill.

Many more “maladies” ran rampant in the 1800s and took a large number lives throughout Canada and the United States. The chances of dying young were excessive during the 19th century, but thanks to new treatments involving antibiotics, and an upgrade in living and working conditions, our ancestors began to experience longer and healthier lives.

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