Have you ever had trouble reading the cause of death on a death certificate? If you have, you are not alone. Thankfully, there is another way to find the cause of death, and it's right there on the death certificate.
In the example above, do you see the number "59" bracketed by two diagonal lines? These numbers are International Classification of Diseases (ICD) codes. The ICD codes were a mechanism developed by the medical community for standardizing and classifying diseases. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the ICD was a system first adopted by the International Statistical Institute in 1893 and recommended by the American Public Health Association in 1898.
Over the years it has been updated and revised to reflect advances in disease classification. As a result, many new codes have been added and the format of the codes have changed. For example, in 1900 there were just 191 codes (1 was “Small-pox: Vaccinated” and 191 was "Violent deaths: Execution"). Today there are over 70,000 codes in the 10th revision of the ICD.
How are these codes helpful for genealogists?
Deciphering the handwritten cause of death on a death certificate can be difficult at times. When this happens, look up the ICD codes online. This website is a good resource.
Be sure to look up the code in the ICD revision in use at the time of death. For example, if someone died in 1912, you’ll want to use the 1909 revision.
Using the example above, the individual died on 20 Sep 1935. That means we'll need to look at the ICD codes revised in 1929. Code 59 was "Diabetes." Now when we go back and read the cause of death, the word "diabetes" is more easily read.
ICD codes were typically assigned by medical coders, and like all people, they sometimes made mistakes when coding. Be aware of this when evaluating ICD codes.
Let’s look at some more examples (all are Ohio death certificates):
If you haven't done so already, go back and look up the ICD codes on the death certificates in your family files. Leave me a comment if you find anything unusual.