Explore Your Archives – Health

28 Nov, 2020

Explore Your Archives – Health

As part of Explore Your Archives launch week, today RQG member Kathryn Burtinshaw looks at the reality of Epilepsy in the nineteenth century Britain.

How often have you seen an unusual cause of death on a certificate and not appreciated that it could lead you to a whole new avenue of research?

In nineteenth century Britain there were many conditions that were considered incurable and killed our ancestors at an early age.  There were some disorders which may have resulted in admission to an asylum or workhouse because of the manifestations they caused on the body and brain.

One of these was epilepsy – still considered to be a difficult condition to manage, but today, with the advent of modern medicine, many individuals with this problem live quite happily and lead successful productive lives.

Unfortunately this was not the case in the nineteenth century when epilepsy was barely understood and many believed seizures to be devil possession or manifestations of witchcraft.  Not only were people with epilepsy unemployable because of the unpredictability of seizures, but most were unlikely to marry due to the stigma attached to the disorder. Epileptics were in effect, a drain on a family – particularly if the family was working class – as they were largely unemployable and needed supervision.  As a result, many were admitted to asylums in the hope of care.

I have been researching a family called the Goslings.  Two sisters Esther and Violet both died in their family home in their early twenties, but their death certificates showed that they died of epilepsy.  Out of curiosity I checked the UK Lunacy Patients Admission Register on Ancestry to see if either of them had been admitted to an asylum and discovered that they had both been admitted to the same asylum on the same day.  They believed that the doctors would be able to cure them.

Asylum case notes are invaluable documents for researchers because of the wealth of family information they provide.  They are a much underused resource but provide details about individuals that are unobtainable from any other source.  Esther and Violet’s case notes show that they came from a loving family who wanted the best for their girls and hoped for a cure.  When it became clear that this was unlikely they were taken back into the family home and cared for until they died two years later.  The asylum didn’t cure them of epilepsy but it did take photographs of both of them – images that really help bring them back to life.  Cheshire Archives and Local Studies in Chester has digitised these images and Esther and Violet can be seen online free of charge.


Kathryn can be found at http://pinpointancestry.co.uk/

Clare O'Grady

1 comment

  1. This is very interesting Kathryn. Another diagnosis of note was “general paralysis”. It wasn’t that someone was paralysed after a stroke. It was GPI – general paralysis of the insane. This was a devastating and (usually) rapidly progressive neurological disorder that killed many people in the 19th century. The physical symptoms included shooting or burning muscular pains, progressive muscle weakness, impaired speech with a shaky tongue, generalised shaking, poor balance, and convulsions. Mental symptoms were often dramatic with euphoria and delusions of grandeur.
    At that time it wasn’t recognised that this was caused by syphilis – and like epilepsy it could not be treated (until the advent of antibiotics).

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