Inflammation is the the body’s response to injury, infection or irritation and usually results in redness, swelling, heat and pain. Inflammation occurs when the body detects a harmful stimulus. This could be caused by foreign organisms (bacteria or viruses), damaged cells or an irritant substance. In response, the body’s immune system produces white blood cells and increases blood flow to the area to remove this threat, ward off infection and heal the affected tissues.
Inflammation is beneficial and part of the healing process. Common causes of everyday inflammation include allergies, exercise, a scratch or cut on the skin and impact from a fall or collision. Inflammation of certain tissues or organs can lead to a large number of diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia, appendicitis, tonsillitis, dermatitis and meningitis.
Immune system disorders can result in abnormal inflammation or inflammatory disorders. Inflammatory diseases are conditions caused by inflammation occurring without a harmful stimulus, also known as autoimmunity. Examples of inflammatory diseases include arthritis, asthma and Crohn’s disease.
At the end of the 18th century, inflammation was understood to mean ‘a surcharge of blood, and an increased action of the vessels, in any particular part of the body.’ This definition highlights that early on the term was associated with increased blood flow. At this time medics were taught that the best treatment for inflammation was bloodletting. William Buchan explains in his 1790 publication, ‘in an inflammation of the brain, nothing more certainly relieves the patient than a free discharge of blood from the nose.’ Though a common medical treatment throughout history, in the 1800s bloodletting began to be discredited and practiced less.
In William Guy’s 1846 edition of the ‘Physician's Vade-mecum’, he writes, ‘redness, pain, increased heat and swelling are symptoms, or characters or phenomena of inflammation’. His explanation corresponds accurately with our understanding of the term inflammation today. Nevertheless, in this section Guy is discussing symptoms of diseases, suggesting that inflammation was considered a disease in itself. Conversely, today we understand inflammation to be an aspect of the body’s immune response. In the 19th century, recorded causes of death were shaped by contemporary understandings of diagnostic criteria. As suggested by Guy’s ‘Physician's Vade-mecum’, 19th century perceptions of what constituted a disease were broader and more general.
It wasn’t until 1874 that registered doctors were required to provide cause of death for death certificates. Before this time, the cause of death would have been provided by the informant. ‘Inflammation’ as a cause of death in the burial registers appears most frequently in the 1840s-1860s. Reduced use of the term as a cause of death in registers over time may reflect evolving understandings of disease, reformed approaches to death certificates and improved medical care.
After simply ‘inflammation’, the second most frequently appearing variant of wording for this cause of death in the burial registers is ‘inflammation of lungs’. This is likely to be referring to diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia or pleurisy which are characterised by inflammation of the tissue of the lungs.
‘Inflammation’ is one of the top ten most common causes of death recorded in the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers. To find out more, visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index. Select ‘View key statistics’ to generate charts displaying the breakdown of who this cause of death affected.
Written by Imogen Gerard and Kelsie Root, as part of their internship with the AHRC project, 'Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s', summer 2017.