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Our Deadly Past:  Epidemics in Your Family History

There are many diseases of the past that we now know how to prevent. Some of the old diseases are so uncommon these days that it is unlikely you will ever hear about them. Yet, if you look at death records you will quickly become aware of a world of diseases you knew nothing about. What did your ancestors die of? Did they die during an epidemic?

One epidemic that scared the world was the Spanish Flu. It was March of 1918 when the first wave of the Spanish Flu hit America in our military camps.[1] The soldiers had brought it home from the War. Unfortunately, it did not stay in one place and spread rather quickly. By fall, we had a second wave and a serious problem on our hands. The virus killed nearly 200,000 Americans in October of that year, including my great grandmother.

Donia Hensley Cole was born in 1893 and was my great grandmother on my maternal side. She was 25 years old when she contracted the flu. According to her death record, she was also pregnant and sick for 9 days before passing. Donia was the mother of three children, all under the age of 7. I have often wondered about her last days and wanted to learn more.

La Grippe, another name for this flu, had a third and final wave in the spring of 1919. The symptoms included fever, aches and pains, nausea and diarrhea. Occasionally, the afflicted would get dark spots on their cheeks and their skin would turn a bluish hue from lack of oxygen. In many cases, the sick would develop pneumonia which would often cause death.

This flu was unique in that it did not seem to afflict only the very young and very old, but it would ravage even the strongest bodies of healthy young adults. It was particularly deadly among pregnant women. The worst part of losing so many in this age group were the orphaned children left behind. It was reported in Philadelphia that so many children had been left orphaned that the Bureau of Child Hygiene found themselves unable to care for them all.[2]

One fifth of the U.S. population became infected.[3] Public health ordinances were instituted to prevent the spread of the disease. There was even an anti-spitting campaign that was enforced with fines and arrests. One slogan read “Spit Spreads Death.”[4]

In many cities, the schools, libraries, and movie theaters were closed. People were kept quarantined when ill. There were few public meetings of any kind including church services.[5] Even with all the effort to contain the disease, 650,000 people died in the United States from the Spanish Flu.[6]


Yet another terrible disease of my ancestors was tuberculosis. Tuberculosis was also known as “consumption,” “galloping consumption,” “TB,” and the “white plague.” Over 100,000 Americans died every year from the bacterial disease in the early 1900s.[7] It is still among one of the most widespread diseases in the world.

Symptoms included a cough lasting up to three weeks, fever, pain, fatigue, and coughing up blood from deep within the lungs. Sanatoriums were created for the sick and were sometimes referred to as “waiting rooms for death.”[8]

One of the difficulties with TB was that a person could be infected but not sick. In other words, the TB bacteria could be latent and in this state, not contagious, but a ticking time bomb. Once TB became active it could pass through coughs, sneezing, and close contact.[9] Family members, because of close proximity, would often catch the disease from an infected loved one. Both of my great-great grandparents died of tuberculosis while in their early 30s. They died three years apart and left behind one child.

I wondered if there were any records for people placed in sanatoriums for tuberculosis. Did my relatives go to a sanatorium or did they die at home? Cyndi’s List has created a long list of possible places for information at

If you believe that your ancestor died or was sick with tuberculosis, check the list above or contact the local historical or genealogical society where your ancestor lived and ask if there are records for any sanatorium in the area.


Diphtheria is a bacterial disease that attacks the nose and throat of the infected person. Though there is a vaccine that protects us today, that wasn’t the case in the not-so-distant past.

Diphtheria was prevalent, especially among children. In 1921, the United States recorded over 200,000 cases which resulted in 15,520 deaths.[10] In England and Wales, diphtheria was one of the leading causes of death in children in the 1930s.[11]

Unless treated, an infected person was contagious for two to three weeks and could easily pass the disease via cough, sneeze, or saliva.

In 1914, diphtheria entered the hLuluWallsDeath1ome of my great grandfather. Two daughters came down with the disease. Lulu was 15 and Iness was seven. Lulu had become sick first and it went undiagnosed until it had progressed quite far. Lulu and Iness were put in the same bed so that they could be quarantined from the rest of the family and receive their treatment. Treatment for diphtheria at that time may have included an antitoxin derived from horses or the disease was left to run its course.

Iness awoke one morning to find her sister lying there dead beside her. Lulu’s tongue had swollen so greatly, that it would not fit into her mouth. Iness was lucky and recovered. She was my paternal grandmother.

In the colonial days, diphtheria was sometimes confused with Scarlet Fever. According to The History of Vaccines by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, other names for diphtheria include but are not limited to: throat disease, throat distemper, malignant croup, angina suffocate, and putrid throat.[12]


If you have a death record that lists an unusual cause of death, you might find out more about it by using the list of old illnesses and their names found at: Reviewing that list will be sure to make you grateful you live in the present!


[1] Molly Billings, “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Stanford University, June 1997, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2015.)

[2] “Influenza Strikes,” The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2015.)

[3] Molly Billings, “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Stanford University, June 1997, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2015.)

[4] Sandra Opdycke, “The Flu Epidemic of 1918: America’s Experience in the Global Health Crisis,” Routledge, 2014, page 101.

[5] David Rosner, “Spanish Flu, or Whatever It Is…: the Paradox of Public Health in a Time of Crisis,” PubMed Central, 2010, Association of Schools of Public Health, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2015.)

[6] Molly Billings, “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Stanford University, June 1997, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2015.)

[7] Richard Sucre, “The Great White Plague: The Culture of Death and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium,” University of Virginia, ( accessed 14 Mar 2015.)

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Understanding Tuberculosis,” American Lung Association, ( : accessed 14 Mar 2015.)

[10] “History of Diphtheria,” The History of Vaccines, ( : accessed 15 Mar 2015.)

[11] “Diphtheria,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pdf, ( : accessed 16 Mar 2015.)

[12] “Names for Diphtheria,” The History of Vaccines, ( : accessed 15 Mar 2015.)

Amie Bowser Tennant Amie Bowser Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant has served as a volunteer at her local Family History Center for more than 10 years. She was awarded the National Genealogical Society Home Study Course Scholarship in American Genealogy in 2011. She also enjoyed the position as newsletter editor for Miami Meanderings, a local county genealogical publication, for two years. Now, she is a research genealogist, speaker, and writer.

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