Having trouble reading cause of death on an ancestor’s death certificate? Just use the ICD

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The ICD? What is that?

The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, usually called by the short-form name International Classification of Diseases (ICD), is the international “standard diagnostic tool for epidemiology, health management and clinical purposes”. -Wikipedia

I recently found the answers to that and more, recently on a Facebook group. I had learned of the existence of the ICD and it’s use for us genealogists in this group and felt I had to share on my website. The website wolfbane.com is the referenced website for this article. There are other sites that have it as well but I feel personally it is much easier to read and use on this site for my purposes.

*There is no connection between wolfbane.com and this website*

By Michael S Sheaffer

International Classification of Diseases

The ICD  (as it is referred) is an index  for phsysicians to refer to for a cause of death when filling out a death certificate. It is a code system that all death certificates have. It really is benefical to genealogists when looking at a death certificate. When you are unable to  read the handwriting of the doctor in the cause of death you can simply look at the code written and refer to the ICD Index and there you will find the cause!

10 Revision Changes

The ICD Index was first written in 1893 and has been revised 10 times with the last revision in 1990. The issue with the revisions is, if an ancestor died in 1915 and you look at the 1920 revision they could be different. You need to make sure you look at the year of death and find that year in the correlating ICD index, otherwise you could find the cause of death to be completely different. Here is an example of two different causes of death with same codes but are from two different revisions. See below:

  • ILCD Revision 2 (1909)
  • ILCD Revision 3 (1920)
    • all codes, provisional edition [13 kb]
    • 137 Cysts, and other tumours of the ovary not returned as malignant
      135   Diseases of the prostate

      As you can see there is quite a difference if you mistakenly refer to the wrong ICD revision.

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My Case study on using the ICD index 

Here is is a death certificate of an ancestor of mine that I had a hard time trying to figure out exactly what the doctor had wrote.  Her name was Cora E (Geesey) Kearns  who had died on March 29th 1915. If we can zoom in to the causes of death area you will see how badly written the cause(s) were…or at least I did. I then look at the contributary causes and that too isnt  much better. This is where the ICD code index comes in handy for us genealogist. You look at the code, in this case there are two 137 & 135. I now go to the ICD index link I found ICD Code Index and there I find her causes of death which in this case were:

137   Puerperal fever
135   Puerperal hemorrhage


Here is another view zoomed into the causes of Death .cora-kearns-death-certificate-cause-of-death-closeup  


Finally a zoomed image of Codes cora-kearns-death-certificate-codesjpg

A quick google search tells me this:

Puerperal fever: a fever arising after giving birth, also called child bed fever, caused by bacterial infection and commonly fatal until the introduction of sulphonamides and later antibiotics in the middle of the 20th century.

Puerperal Hemorrhage: is a broad definition but is basically late stage postpartum bleeding.


Medical Definition ofcontracted pelvis

  1. :  a pelvis that is abnormally small in one or more principal diameters and that consequently interferes with normal childbirth


I can see that she was a 19 year old married woman who according to codes died of Puerperral Fever  and contracted sepsis and post par tum hemmorhage after giving birth. To conclude this with her obituary it shows she died leaving a husband and one son. In the 1920 Census husband Charles had remarried but had no children. The son that he had with Cora must have died as well at some point as he is no where to be found .  We can conclude she died some 18 days after giving birth.  



As you can see using the ICD Codes index can be of great value to us family historians. In this case We were able to determine that she was a young married woman who had just given birth and died from a post partum infection(s). In her obituary it lists she had a son but whas that the same son or not???? And what happened to that son?? And so as is the case in genealogy we find the answer for one thing and it brings nothing but more questions! How can you not love genealogy??

International Classification of Diseases and Revisions

Contents List

Selected 5-character Read Codes, Version 3.1, provisional edition (2004) [109 kb]


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