Bright’s disease is an archaic term for what is now referred to as ‘nephritis’. Nephritis is an inflammation of the kidneys, caused by toxins, infection or autoimmune conditions. It is not strictly a single disease, rather a condition with a number of types and causes. In glomerulonephritis, the most common type of nephritis, the infection affects the renal basin. In interstitial nephritis, the inflammation affects the space between the renal tubes.
There are three main causes of nephritis, each with their own nomenclature. ‘Pyelonephritis’ is kidney inflammation that can develop when an untreated urinary tract infection spreads to the kidneys. ‘Lupus nephritis’ is caused by an autoimmune response during a lupus flare. Nephritis can also be caused by strain and injury to the kidneys during exercise, known as ‘athletic nephritis’.
It often causes blood or clouding in the urine, pain, swelling in the legs, fatigue and sweating. It can also cause necessary proteins to be excreted into the urine stream. The loss of these proteins can cause blood clots to form, leading to death by stroke, pulmonary embolism or heart attack. This is the most common way that nephritis can cause death.
Bright’s disease was named for the physician Dr Richard Bright (1789 to 1858) who was credited for the discovery of the disease through his research on patients who exhibited dropsy (swelling) and albuminuria (protein in the urine). This research allowed him to create a new category of disease. In 1827, he published his work ‘Reports on Medical Cases’, which included this research.
Prior to this publication, physicians would have diagnosed patients who exhibited swelling and albuminuria with the general problem of ‘dropsy’. With the creation of the category of Bright’s disease, it became possible for physicians to recognise and treat the dangers of kidney inflammation. Bright came to be known as the ‘godfather of nephrology’ for his work on kidney diseases.
Visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index to view all entries in the registers relating to Bright's Disease or Nephritis. Select ‘View key statistics’ to generate charts displaying the breakdown of who this disease 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.