Pneumonia: Leading Cause of Death in the Early 20th Century

A death certificate from 1890 - cause of death: pneumonia

Pneumonia: Leading Cause of Death in the Early 20th Century

Woman in proper black mourning dress
Woman in proper mourning dress

In the days before antibiotics many people died from communicable diseases. One of these diseases was pneumonia. At the turn-of-the-20thcentury it was the leading cause of death, and 40 percent of those who died were under the age of five.

Adults, of course, were not immune. Women were susceptible to pneumonia because their tight corsets made it difficult for their lungs to function properly.

Still, death rates for contagious diseases were dropping as the new century dawned thanks to sanitation, clean drinking water, hygiene, pest control and vaccination.


An 1890s Vick's ad for a pneumonia salve
An 1890s Vick’s ad for a pneumonia salve

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs caused usually by bacteria or a virus. Those with underlying medical conditions or a weakened immune system are more vulnerable.

Symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Phlegm
  • Fluid on the lungs
  • Bluish skin tone

The lungs of a patient might experience what is called crackles, a distinctive sound.

Famous Deaths

A death certificate from 1890 - cause of death: pneumonia
A death certificate from 1890 – cause of death: pneumonia

Pneumonia claimed the lives of many during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Some notable people who died of the disease before 1920 include:

  • Leo Tolstoy
  • John McCrae
  • Lewis Carroll
  • Victor Hugo
  • Walt Whitman
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Johann Strauss II
  • Susan B. Anthony
  • Andrew Carnegie
  • Stonewall Jackson
  • Robert E. Lee
  • Geronimo
  • Calamity Jane
  • President William Henry Harrison
  • President Benjamin Harrison
  • Boss Tweed
  • John Muir

Pneumonia is not a disease of a bygone era, however. It is still one of the top 10 causes of death and is the top cause of hospitalization in the United States, according to the CDC.

The best means of prevention are handwashing and covering the nose and mouth while sneezing or coughing. Vaccines also are available.


Updated: 23 October 2020
Melina Druga
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Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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