Monday, February 5, 2018

Martha (Reay) (Doyle) Richardson's Cause of Death

Yes, that U.K. GRO death certificate I was waiting to look at last week was for my third-great-grandmother, Martha (Reay) (Doyle) Richardson!  She was the daughter of Robert and Mary (Bell) Reay and wife of both William Doyle and Thomas Richardson.  She was born on November 7, 1809, and died on February 4, 1869 -- 149 years and one day ago.

U.K. GRO Death 1869 certificate of Martha (Reay) (Doyle) Richardson

Below is a transcription of Martha's death record from the U.K. GRO Office, Registration Year 1869, Volume 10B, Page 215.
Superintendent Registrar’s District   Morpeth
Registrar’s District   Bedlington
1869.   DEATHS in the District of Bedlington in the County of Northumberland
No.   105
When and Where Died.   Fourth February 1869 Bedlington Colliery
Name and Surname.   Martha Richardson
Sex.   Female
Age.   62 Years
Rank or Profession.   Wife of Thomas Richardson a Coal Miner
Cause of Death.   Chronic Bronchitis 6 months Certified
Signature, Description, and Residence of Informant.   X “The Mark” of Thomas Richardson Present at the Death Bedlington Colliery
When Registered.   Eighth February 1869
Signature of Registrar.   Robert Harbottle Registrar

Notes and Comments
Martha was born on November 7, 1809.  Her age at death was 59, not 62.

Chronic bronchitis, Martha's cause of death, is one type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).  It is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes which are the airways to the lungs.  Chronic bronchitis causes coughing, difficulty breathing, and produces more mucous than usual.  In our day, it can be the result of smoking and exposure to smoke from cigarettes as well as from any other lung irritants.  (Information here and here.)  Martha was the daughter and wife of coal miners and lived in coal mining communities from the time she was a child.  It's possible that coal dust was a primary contributing factor to her having chronic bronchitis.

This description of the disease, below, comes from the January 7, 1860, edition of the British Medical Journal in an article written by Henry Duncalfe, Esq., entitled, "On the Pathological Conditions and Treatment of Chronic Bronchitis," part of which is available for view here.

The first division of cases [of chronic bronchitis] to which I will direct your attention are characterised by frequent, violent, and protracted paroxysms of coughing, but attended with a slight amount of expectoration; the expectorated fluid being usually clear, thick, and gluey, holding in suspension small, roundish, tough, and greyish pellets, which from time to time become disengaged from the bronchial tubes.  The pulse is generally hurried; the skin warm and dry; there is a general tendency to waste, with impaired appetite, and sometimes entire aversion to food; but, from any little irregularity, or exposure to cold, the skin becomes hot, the tongue dry, and patients have a great desire for cold drinks.  The expectoration then becomes more copious and frothy; and these acute symptoms do not readily yield to treatment, but gradually diminish in intensity till the disease imperceptibly runs into its ordinary chronic form.  "One attack leads, under favourable circumstances, to another.  The chronic state is increased, both in extent and virulence, by the supervening of every acute attack; and such frequent revival of the disease tends materially to impede recovery.  The disease, when protracted, brings about certain changes of structure, which operate as exciting and sustaining causes of the original affection, implicating other organs, and exhausting that innervation of the respiratory apparatus which is essential to health and life."  The breathing is laboured,....

Today there is treatment for chronic bronchitis and medications to ease the pain but in Martha's day, there was probably little that could have been done for her.  It sounds like a painful death.


Copyright ©2018, Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. It does sound like a painful death! I have researched the cause of death of my ancestors a few times, but I think it needs to be something I always do. And, it's great to keep in mind how that disease would have been treated at the time and place our ancestors died.

    1. I suppose death from severe bronchitis would be akin to asphyxiation but I'm not sure. It seems like I've had a lot of ancestors die of unusual deaths, not just old age, so it's interesting to learn a little more and, yes, keep in mind contemporary treatments -- leaches, bleeding, etc.


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