Croup? Or Diphtheria?

The last two children born to my great-great grandfather, Hirsh Berkman, and his wife Sore, died as toddlers of croup. This was identified in death records from the Lithuanian town where they lived. Aharon Nate died at a-year-and-a-half in 1882, and daughter Teme Leye died at two-and-a-half years in 1886. This had me looking for some explanation for deaths from an illness that my brother easily survived at a similar age, but in the 1960s.

Death of Aharon Nate Berkman
Death of Aharon Nate Berkman (Index) From

The medical literature in the late 1800s has a number of articles (one here) about the overly wide use of the term croup to include diphtheria. So that made a lot of sense. The bacterium for diphtheria wasn’t identified until 1883, and there were a number of epidemics of the disease worldwide well into the 20th century. According to Natural History of Infectious Disease, a diphtheria epidemic that started in England in 1858 had spread worldwide within a year, with a second period of high death-rates in Europe around 1890.

Once the bacterium was identified, scientists were able to produce an anti-toxin, starting in about 1895.

diphtheria antitoxin
Preparing diphtheria antitoxin from the white blood cells of horses. Marburg, Germany. c. 1895 Source:

As genealogists, we often come across causes of death (or illnesses) that look familiar, but a little search into the history of medicine may lead to something entirely different.


This has been a little side trek away from family history, but more is coming! Consider subscribing to the blog, and have a look at previous posts that you might have missed.

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