Did my great great grandmother really die of arthritis in her hip?
QMy great great grandmother, Antoinette Ritchie, (mother of seven children) died at the age of 33 in Brixton, Surrey, in 1864. The cause of death given on her death certificate was “Arthritis Hip Joint 2 years”. As far as I’m aware, arthritis of the hip isn’t fatal, so why would this be the cause of her death?
Chris Rose, by email
AFrom the information on the death certificate, we do not know what type of arthritis this was. Infectious (septic) arthritis of the hip could kill, but usually within two years. However, septic arthritis is more likely in those who have rheumatoid arthritis as the joints are already inflamed. If this were the case, as symptoms are similar, Antoinette may not have known the arthritis had turned septic.
Rheumatoid arthritis could cause not only joint pain but inflammation in the lungs and heart tissue etc. In this instance, had your great great grandmother developed either of these problems, they – combined with an inability to move well – could have led to her death.
Notably, the death certificate is sparse on detail, omitting a secondary cause. This was not uncommon. I have seen several death certificates from the 1860s that are vague on cause of death. One, for example, read simply: “Alcohol”. And I have seen death certificates well into the 20th century that state: “Old Age”. Thus there may have been a secondary factor in the death, such as pneumonia, which was not noted on the certificate. The many pregnancies that your great great grandmother had endured up to the relatively young age of 33 may be relevant also.
Had she given birth within the two years before she died?
It may be useful for you to read a recent British Medical Journal report from 2013 at
bmj.co/1Ed18F5 that covered the case of septic arthritis in the hip joint caused by Group B streptococci in a 30-year-old woman with a history of childbirth.
Arthritis can be as serious today as it was for our ancestors. For more medical details, visit the Arthritis Research UK website at www.arthritisresearchuk.org/arthritisinformation/conditions/arthritis.aspx.
AntoinetteAt i tt Ritchie’sRit hi ’d death th certificatetifi t fromf 21 AprilA il 1864