Death in Athens, 1919 - 1928

Causes of Death in Athens, Georgia:

1. Heart Failure

Early Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used Foxglove to treat heart failure. In the early 20th century, heart failure became associated with fluid retention and blood was drained from lower limbs.

Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. The heart muscle weakens with age, increasing the risk of heart failure in those aged 65 and older.

Today, heart failure treatments include decreased salt intake, increased exercise, and medications. However, in the early 20th century, the first mercurial based diuretic treatments were being used to treat heart failure.

Most deaths by heart failure in both the 1900s and today were African Americans. Modern research shows that Black Americans carry a gene that leads to increased risk of heart disease.

2. Pneumonia and Influenza

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs resulting from an infection. Influenza. a viral infection is a leading cause of pneumonia. Because influenza is often a factor in the development of pneumonia, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish pneumonia and influenza--especially before the innovation of modern medical technology.

Penicillin, the primary treatment for pneumonia would not be innovated until 1928 and vaccinations against influenza would not be innovated until 1938. As such, quarantine and heightened personal hygiene were the only viable treatments of such airborne and contact-driven diseases.

Of the 304 deaths listed as a result of pneumonia, 162 (53%) of them were African-American, which demonstrates that there was a relative degree of parity among pneumonia deaths by race in the city of Athens. In terms of the sex of the people who died of influenza in the city of Athens within the period, 151 (49.6%) of them were males. According to this data, pneumonia and influenza truly do not discriminate when it comes to claiming the lives of those afflicted.

3. Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that usually attacks the lungs, which kills about half of the people infected if left untreated. Historically, tuberculosis has killed an estimated one billion people and remains one of the top causes of death worldwide today. Famously, coughing blood and extreme weight loss are symptoms of tuberculosis. As a result of this extreme weight loss, tuberculosis has historically been known as consumption.

Tuberculosis had no reliable treatments until very recently. During the tuberculosis epidemic of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, most consumptives were prescribed rest, a healthy diet, and outdoor exercise. Less common were prescriptions of bleedings and purgings. Most people afflicted with tuberculosis did not survive, and those who did were suffered severe recurrences.

For the period of 1919-1924, between 20 and 41 Athenians died of tuberculosis each year, with the average hovering around 30 for the entire period. Across the entire period, black Athenians died of tuberculosis in much larger numbers than did white Athenians. The average age of death across the entire period was approximately thirty years of age, which supports the reputation of the illness as predominant among young people.

4. Stillborn

Stillborn deaths are often caused by issues present before birth but are not limited to that with some deaths occurring during labor and birth. In some cases, malformations of organs do not let the fetus fully develop and thus it becomes unviable.

Modern medicine uses ultrasounds to monitor fetal development to warn parents and doctors of potential problems, but this procedure was not introduced until the late 1950’s.

Of the 176 stillborn infants 102 were African American. A possible factor in this higher death rate is that African American families did not have access to the same medical care white families did. Before 1954 hospitals were segregated with separate wards for white and black patients.

5. Stomach Failure

Gastroparesis is when the stomach stops moving food into the small intestines to be digested even if there is nothing blocking it. Causes for Gastroparesis can be poor dietary habits, diabetes, and eating disorders.
X-rays could be used to diagnose blockages, but some ulcers and tumors could go undetected. One ulcer treatment was to insert a tube through the nose and into the stomach and pour milk to soothe the ulcers. Doctors would also suggest diets of bland food that would not irritate the stomach.

The number of deaths caused by stomach failure were relatively even across gender and ethnicity lines. The average number of deaths per year was 18.78 and the year with the most deaths from stomach failure was 1920 with 27 deaths.

6. Cancer

Cancer is the unregulated production and/or mutation of new bodily cells. Cancer can affect almost every part of the human body. Cancerous tumors can spread disease to surrounding tissue, thus resulting in the spread of the illness to other parts of the body. Cancer can be a result of inheritance or environmental factors.

Cancer treatment was virtually nonexistent in the early twentieth century, and especially in a relatively small town like Athens in the American South. At the turn of the century, it was discovered that radiation could be used to eradicate cancer, but radiation as a treatment was confined to Europe and still exceedingly rare. As a result, many cancer patients were simply prescribed rest and a healthy diet, though instances of traditional homebrews and herbal treatments were likely also common.

Throughout the period 1919-1924, the average age of death for Athenians afflicted with cancer was approximately 53, though there were some Athenians who survived well into their seventh and eighth decades before succumbing to cancer. Unfortunately, there were also exceedingly young Athenians who lost their lives to cancer within the same period, such as the infant who died of cancer before their first birthday. Throughout the whole period, white Athenians experienced more cancer deaths than black Athenians, though white Athenians with cancer had a life expectancy of approximately five years longer than black Athenians.

7. Nephritis

There are three common types of nephritis: Interstitial, Pyelonephritis, and Glomerulonephritis. Each are defined by inflammation of the kidneys. The main cause of glomerulonephritis is unknown.
Dialysis is the most effective treatment for serious cases of nephritis, but it was not introduced until 1943, which may serve as a factor in the large number of deaths by nephritis seen between 1919 and 1928.
109 of the 151 deaths by nephritis in the targeted time period are Black Americans. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure so there may be a relationship between the aforementioned gene, diabetes, and the majority of Black Americans suffering from nephritis.

8. Apoplexy

Apoplexy refers to the bleeding of an organ or the loss of blood flow to an organ. It is important to note that between the 14th and 19th centuries, any sudden death that began with loss of consciousness was defined as apoplexy. This may contribute to the reasons why apoplexy was the 8th largest cause of death seen in Athens between 1919 and 1928.

Today, apoplexy is treated with surgery and hormone supplements, but for a large part of the 20th century, it was thought that bloodletting was an effective way to relieve pressure in the blood, thus treating the condition.

9. Paralysis

Paralysis is the loss of muscle control in the body that impedes those affected from moving, eating, and doing other tasks. Potential causes of paralysis are brain damage and diseases like polio, both of which can be lethal.

There was no effective treatment for stroke in the 20th century (see apoplexy above) and for polio treatments were only in development.

The average age of those who died of paralysis was 63.54 which suggest stroke may have been the main factor in death from paralysis since three quarters of those who suffer a stroke are 65 or above. African Americans died more often and at younger ages (59.85) than white counterparts (69.69). The reason that the death certificates may not have listed these deaths as apoplexy is because the doctors could have been unable to tell what nervous system condition the patient suffered from.

10. Premature Birth

A baby is considered premature when they are born before 37 weeks; because of their early birth premature babies are predisposed to falling ill. Weight is another concern for premature babies as 17% die from being underweight.

Risks that increase the likelihood of premature birth are short times between pregnancies (18 months), multiples, substance abuse, past early births, or general complications with pregnancy. Premature infants were separated from other newborns and given care by specialized nurses and put into incubators to maintain body heat they could not keep because of their weight.
Male infants had a higher death rates due to prematurity, likely because they needed more weight than females to regulate their body heat.


Stepahnie Lopez, Savannah Lang, and Leslie Wyatt

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