UMass Researcher Receives $901,000 Grant to Study Grammars of Death in Holyoke, Northampton

AMHERST, Mass. - A University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher has received a three-year, $901,093 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study changing medical terminology and address the historical precision of cause-of-death records in the Connecticut River communities of Holyoke and Northampton from 1850 to 1912.

Douglas L. Anderton, professor of sociology, director of the Social and Demographic Research Institute, and associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass, says the grant will be used to help analyze the changing literal causes of death for individuals in last half of the 19th century and in the 20th century. The project is titled, "Grammars of Death: 19th Century Literal Causes of Death from the Age of Miasmas to Germ Theory."

He offers an example of why the research is needed. "The ambiguities in coming to terms with causes of death in the early years of the study are illustrated by the recorded cause of death for Sylvester Graham, a noted health advocate of Northampton, as due to ‘Congress waters and tepid baths,’" Anderton says. Graham, a local health advocate credited with inventing the graham cracker, was thought to have died from consuming a specific type of mineral water, and failing to abide by the practice of the day of taking cold, bracing baths, Anderton says – details that reveal conceptions of death that are lost on most modern observers.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to witness and study changing social conceptions of death during a period of radical change in the ways in which disease and death were understood," Anderton says. Massachusetts was the only state that systematically recorded causes of death in this critical period.

The research covers a period when major trends of the 19th century were underway in medicine, he says. These include the emerging public sanitation movement, germ theory, surgical sterilization, and standardized terminology and medical education that shaped social conceptions of "legitimate" causes of death. "By the end of this period, the International Classification of Diseases is largely accepted and standardized diagnoses are in place," he says. "Tracing the origins of our current conceptions of death and disease are among the reasons we are very interested in studying the 19th century," he says.

Contact Douglas Anderton at 413/545-5973 or dla@sadri.umass.edu.