Research Tip of the Week

Vital records are the backbone of genealogy.

Birth, marriage, and death records are the base documents we strive to discover for every research subject when possible.

Each type of document supplies certain details that are of family history importance but often there are details that we might not consider at first glance.

This week’s tip is about death certificates and using the international classification of diseases code to understand illegible or confusing causes of death on death records.

International classification of diseases

The international classifications of diseases or ICD are a code system that used to track diseases. The system currently in use dates to 1893 when French physician Jacques Bertillion introduced his Bertillion Classification of Causes of Death. The coding system’s purpose was in part to track causes of death. The United States adopted the coding system in 1898. The codes are updated and revised as needed and today the world is preparing for the 11th version to go into effect in 2022. Nations around the globe use ICD codes.

While cause of death is not necessarily a family history fact in a genealogical sense it can help add context to family history research in many cases.

In some cases, it might also supply clues to help move your research forward.

Using ICD codes

For my example I will use my great aunt who died at age 19.

1919 Death Certificate of Margaret Spence

While in this case the death certificate is not horribly difficult to read it would be easy for someone to miss information here.

The code for this case is 137. We see that number listed in large easy to read writing in the cause of death box.

The large 137 is the ICD code

I use the date of death to look up the correct version of the ICD in use at the time of Margaret’s death. In this case she died in 1919 so the 2nd edition of the ICD is the one I need.

The ICD code 137 refers to puerperal fever. Comparing that with the death certificate I can clearly see now that she died of septic puerperal fever, septicemia, and the contributary cause was peritonitis.

At this point it would be easy to close the chapter on Margaret Scott. She died at 19. She had one daughter prior to her death. Understanding the actual cause of Margaret’s death led me to look closer at her life… and her descendants. Puerperal fever is also known as childbirth fever. Margaret died because of childbirth. Did the baby survive?

Digging deeper

The 1920 census reveals that Margaret’s baby survived her and the infant was in the care of Margaret’s surviving husband, George Scott, and her mother, Anna. George remarried in July of 1920 and Margaret’s children grew up in the household of George and his second wife. Without do thorough research I could have easily missed the son, Millard Scott. By using the ICD code, I was able to understand more about Margaret’s death and insure I did not miss including her second child in her list of descendants.

1920 Census showing George Scott with his 2 children

Have you ever used ICD codes on death certificates to help your research?

Find a list of the historic ICD codes here!

Be sure to check out previous week’s tips for other great research tips.

8 replies »

  1. I have never, and now I am so mad that I was unaware. I am obsessed with death certificates and now I’m going to have to go back and recheck them all. Now if I can locate my 2x great grandmother, I will truly be over the moon. Thanks so much for this.

    Liked by 1 person

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