Civil Registration

Cause of Death: Childbirth?

Mary McCourt, wife of “Con” (short for either Constantine or Cornelius: the records differ on this point) Hazelton, died at Brudenell, Renfrew Co., Ontario on 13 May 1907. Her Ontario civil death record lists the cause of death as “heart failure, two weeks duration,” and records the name of A.T. Gourlay as the physician in attendance.

What the death record doesn’t note is that eight days earlier, on 5 May 1907, Mary McCourt had given birth to her sixth and youngest child, Mary Margaret Constance Hazelton.

So: heart failure? In a woman of about 32 years of age? It’s difficult not to suspect that the fatal heart problem was related to pregnancy (e.g., edema, to name just the first possibility that comes to mind).

And I’ve seen at least a couple of other, similar examples in the death records of women of childbearing age in my family tree, where the “cause of death” is listed as “heart” or “anemia,” and then you notice, by looking at other records, that the deceased woman had very recently given birth.
Some people now have, I think, a somewhat exaggerated sense of the perils of childbearing in times past: as if, without epidurals and fetal monitors and the like, every other woman was destined to die of the experience of childbirth. Not so; and had that been the case, it’s hard to imagine how the human race could have made it to the mid-twentieth century or so. But on the other hand, until very recently women did routinely die of childbirth and its complications (some of which, no doubt, had to do with broader, underlying health issues of malnutrition and so on); and when things went wrong, they probably often did so dramatically, and frequently irrevocably too (that is, without the possibility of a safe and effective medical remedy).
Look closely at the data recorded in the construction of your family tree, and you will likely find some childbirth-related deaths, and also, perhaps, one or two or a few deaths attributed to other causes which followed suspiciously close upon the event of a childbirth.
I can’t help wondering whether the “causes of death” officially recorded in the Ontario civil registration don’t tend to underestimate the incidence of mortality related to pregnancy and childbirth.
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