Ryan Taylor A medical mystery solved


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By Ryan Taylor

You can always tell an inexperienced genealogist by their negative approach. They can't find anything. They've been looking for two months and haven't found the answer.

Some of my family history problems have been around for forty years, but I still plan on solving them before I'm through. You have to hope, but you also have to keep your eyes open.

A few days ago I was reading a review by John Carey of Bertie, May and Mrs Fish: Country Memories of Wartime, by Xandra Bingley (HarperCollins, 2005). It was published in a colour supplement to the London Times a year ago. The magazine has been hanging around on my desk all these months, waiting for me to read it.

One paragraph made me take notice. It described Xandra's visits to the poor in her neighborhood in England during World War II. She talked to a "farm labourer's wife whose son has been killed in the war, and [she] learnt about the suffering of the rural poor in the early years of the [twentieth] century -- 'there were people starving then. On a baby's death certificate they wrote consumption of the bowels -- that was what they called starvation.'"

My grandfather's sister Alice died in 1894 in Norfolk, England's worst slum. Her cause of death was given as 'consumption of the bowels.' I had asked a number of medical people and consulted dictionaries of medicine, but never found this strange disease. Here, by chance, was the answer.

It made sense, too. She was three years old and weighed ten pounds. Her mother had been told that it was important never to leave Alice unattended, and if she asked for a drink of water, to give it to her. The mother tied her to a chair and went off drinking, and a neighbour found Alice screaming in pain. She died two weeks later.

So consumption of the bowel was a euphemism, I thought. They wouldn't like to say a baby starved to death, because someone might ask, "Why wasn't something done?"

Consumption is a term usually used as a synonym for tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs. There is also consumption of the bones.

One of my librarian colleagues said he had recently come across consumption in the same context in German. He said there were terms used centuries ago in Germany which meant a wasting or withering disease.

Wikipedia is a useful online encyclopedia whose articles are written by interested members of the public. There are English and German versions. German Wikipedia gives the terms Auszehrung and Abzehrung for the English starvation meaning of consumption. Tuberculosis is called Schwindtsucht.

Although the words look the same, this other meaning of consumption was separate from the lung disease. Its use faded away, and now even medical people don't know about it. Only the memory of an old woman from sixty years ago recorded the answer.

I have wondered about Alice's death for ten years. Now, without looking, I have the answer. It fits with what I know of the family's circumstances. One of her brothers died of 'marasmus', a term still in medical dictionaries, defined as 'failure to thrive.' It sounds much the same. What sadness this family faced.

As more things become available online, many old genealogical questions will be answered. And chance will also play its part, as Henry Z. Jones observed in his fascinating study of serendipity in genealogy, Psychic Roots (1993).

Bertie, May and Mrs Fish is now available in paperback online from amazon.co.uk. Researchers in old Lutheran records should watch for Auszehrung as a cause of death in burials.

Posted August 15, 2006
Column copyright © 2006 Ryan Taylor

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