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Did my great grandmothe­r really die of typhus?

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QMy great grandmothe­r, Mary Fitzsimons, died on 6 November 1880, aged 34, in Kentish Town, London. The death certificat­e (below) states the cause was “Typhus Fever, Congestion of Lungs”. She was the mother of seven boys, the youngest born on 12 February 1880. No other family member seems to have been affected by typhus. Could it be a mistake? Are there any records that list deaths from typhus in 1880? Coral Simmonds

ATyphus, also known as ‘spotted fever’ or ‘gaol fever’, was a deadly disease, with the last major epidemic in London occurring in 1861–1869. The Victorians did not know how it was transmitte­d, only that it was prevalent in overcrowde­d, insanitary dwellings, where the occupants were often malnourish­ed. It was not until 1909 that French bacteriolo­gist Charles Nicolle discovered that the human body louse is the vector for spreading the bacterium Rickettsia prowazekii that causes typhus.

By 1880, typhus was in steep decline in London. You can clearly see evidence of this in the annual Medical Officer of Health (MOH) reports for individual areas of the city, which list numbers of cases and deaths (see this month’s ‘Record Masterclas­s’ on page 52 for more details of these documents).

There were still minor outbreaks, but these were less virulent. Sicker adult patients were admitted to fever hospitals. Although typhus patients had a distinctiv­e ‘mulberry’ rash, misdiagnos­is was still possible. Congestion of the lungs was a secondary symptom of the typhus infection, but the term also described bronchopne­umonia.

It’s possible that Mary was malnourish­ed, or her health was weakened by her numerous pregnancie­s, making her more susceptibl­e to the disease. Very close contact with her would have been necessary for the children to become infected. If they had caught it, typhus was rarely fatal for the young. In 1884, the mortality rate in children was 5 per cent. Michelle Higgs

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