During my undergraduate course in genetics in the early 1970s, I don’t recall eugenics ever being mentioned. It was the ‘subject that dares not speak its name’. At the time I assumed that it had been a Nazi aberration. It was only more recently that I realised that during the 1901s and 1920s the subject was mainstream. Virtually all geneticists were eugenicists. It was widely commented on by the mainstream media and its influence spread to economics and politics. There were close ties between American eugenicists & philanthropists and scientists in Germany.
In the following series of posts I want to combine my knowledge of genetics with the perspective of a genealogist to illustrate some aspects of the subject from a personal and family perspective.


[Article 1 on the theme of Eugenics]

I have some records kept by my father, starting in the 1930s.  The first entry in his fishing diary was in March 1932, while it appears that he started keeping records of his shooting from October, 1931.  The shooting appears to have stopped around 1940 but he continued to make systematic entries into the fishing diary right up till his death in 1989.  He also kept a personal diary intermittently from 1931 to 1936.  Together these documents give the impression of a fresh start being made.

Photo of James McWilliam practicing golfThe first entry in the personal diary reads “Started golf again after exactly two years”.  These words conceal what must have been a deeply traumatic period for himself and his family.  As I understand it he had contracted TB which resulted in him developing curvature of the spine.  This was treated with a bone graft from his hip. I believe it was the first operation of its kind in the country.  Certainly during the course of his final illness he reported with relish his consultant inviting his team to examine the scar and speculate on the cause.  I presume he avoided a more serious infection of the lungs and made virtually a complete recovery.  Fortunately he was virtually ambidextrous because subsequently he had to play tennis and badminton left handed.  It doesn’t appear to have affected his golf and he was able to fish with either hand – a useful skill in the small, tree lined rivers of Monaghan.  Less usefully during his recovery, which necessitated a period of six months lying on his back, he claimed to have learned to knit – a skill which I never saw him display.

Photo of James McWilliam fishingFor me the story was something that had happened but which I didn’t think much about.  By my childhood antibiotics had rendered TB relatively treatable.  It was only when I started researching the family history that the true impact became clear.  Throughout the nineteenth century the genealogical records show the toll the disease exacted on young adults in my immediate family.

Death cert of Hessie McWilliam

The death certificate of my father’s grandmother, Hessie Morell/McWilliam, shows that she died, aged 32, of phthisis – an old name for TB of the lungs.

Hessie Morell

The death certificates of two brothers of her husband, William McWilliam, show that they died of the same disease at about the same age.
Perhaps most poignantly Thomas, the writer of the letter quoted in my previous post, is the first name on the McWilliam gravestone in Coolshannagh graveyard in Monaghan. He died in 1881 aged 30.
In this letter he gives acute pen-pictures of his siblings including the two brothers who had recently died. However in keeping with his age about half the letter is devoted to affairs of the heart.

Letter from Thomas to John McWilliams

At least two of Hessie’s sisters and her brother died young, possibly from the same cause.  In the Morell family in the previous generation there were also several deaths of young adults and in a diary kept by Hessie’s grandfather, Rev James Morell, he describes one of his sons, Edward as coughing blood.  My father’s diagnosis must have been a hammer blow for his parents.  Perhaps fortunately his grandfather, William, had died two years previously, saving him from contemplating the possible death of his eldest grandson.

From the point of view of our family this was a story with a happy ending. TB, in the circles we move in has largely been eradicated. It is perhaps fortunate that the family was of a certain class and living in a Catholic country at the time. Others with a similar medical history but in a different place and social class were not so fortunate.

1 thought on “Phthisis

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