Doctors and Penmanship
Have you ever had difficulty reading the cause of death on a death certificate? I share your pain (and so do the thousands of other genealogists reading this post.) Doctors learn a number of things in medical school, but Palmer penmanship is not one of them.
Did you know there’s a potential solution out there for your dilemma? Health statisticians have created the “International Classification of Diseases” lists. While these lists were created to help public health authorities to understand what kinds of maladies were impacting their constituencies, they’re a boon for helping genealogists decipher what the doctor wrote on Grandpa’s death certificate.
The original list of disease classification was created in 1893 and has been revised approximately every ten years since. A link to these lists can be found at http://www.sb-genealogy.org/files/International_Classification_of_Diseases.pdf.
When you look at a death certificate, often in the area where the cause of death is written, you might see a numerical code, generally two to three digits, sometimes followed by a letter. In the image below, the 1939 death certificate of two-day-old Patricia Johnson, the first word of the cause of death has been somewhat obscured by the code, “157c.” I can make out two words, “… foramen ovale,” (which I recall from my high school biology course 40 year ago has something to do with the heart.) When I look at the disease classification list for 1938 (the most current list in existence for the year of her death), 157c is described as “congenital malformation of heart.” Being able to look up the code has given me a pretty clear picture of what happened to this wee baby.
Not every death certificate shows the numerical code right next to the cause of death. In the following 1936 death certificate for Elizabeth Doyle, the cause of death appears on the right-hand side of the page, approximately halfway down. I think I can read “subacute nephritis.” At the very top of the page on the left-hand side above the county of death appears the number 130, which according to the 1929 disease classification list refers to “acute nephritis.”
Three takeaways from this lesson –
1. Bookmark this website. If you’re like me, you’ll want to refer to it often.
2. Use the most recent disease classification list taken before the year of death on the certificate. If the certificate you're working with is one of the "update" years, look at that one as well as the prior one. The statistician marking your death certificate may have been working with an old list, not the most up-to-date one.
3. If you don’t see the code near the cause of death, look around. It’s probably there, hiding in plain sight.
 “Please, oh please,” says this hopeful blogger.
 "Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XZBK-982 : 8 December 2014), Patricia Johnson, 10 Dec 1939; citing Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, reference fn 72017; FHL microfilm 2,023,770. Accessed 3 January 2017
 "Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XZDJ-QQS : 8 December 2014), Elizabeth Doyle, 18 Nov 1936; citing Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, reference fn 68990; FHL microfilm 2,022,732. Accessed 3 January 2017
 The 1929 disease classification list includes “130 - Acute nephritis,” “131 - Chronic nephritis,” and “132 - Nephritis, not stated to be acute or chronic.” There does not appear to be a distinct code for “subacute nephritis.”
1/4/2017 07:48:12 am
Thanks for the link to the ICD editions, and the tip to check one edition earlier than the one closest to the death you investigate.
6/9/2021 04:56:57 am
Doctor's penmanship is always makes me feel confused. It's very interesting to know this story.
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Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.