‘Dropsy’ refers to swelling under the skin, and is generally known today as 'oedema' or 'edema'. In edema, the area under the skin (the interstitium) fills with fluid. It is normal for fluid to be secreted into the interstitium. However, when disease causes the body to overproduce this fluid or impairs the body’s ability to drain this fluid away, it accumulates and becomes edema.
Edema can vary in severity, but it is uncomfortable and can be extremely painful. It is a symptom of a number of diseases. It is likely that some of those whose cause of death is recorded as dropsy were actually killed by the condition that caused the swelling, rather than the swelling itself.
Some conditions which can cause the kind of swelling associated with dropsy are cardiac failure, lung problems and malnutrition. Some people also experience edema during pregnancy. Dropsy can also be caused by problems in specific organs, such as liver disease or pancreatitis.
As so many conditions cause swelling as a symptom, dropsy affected a huge variety of people. This is reflected in the burial registers: generally, dropsy tended to affect people over the age of 50 and there were slightly more women than men recorded to have died of it, but the cases are diverse. Dropsy is also the given cause of death for the first person ever to be buried in the Leeds General Cemetery: William Sheward, Surgeon to Her Majesty's Forces, buried on the 25th August 1835.
‘Dropsy’ 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 numbers, ages, gender and more of those 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.