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My great, great grandfather was serving in the US Navy in Mexico when he died in 1878.

We've had the hand-written death record translated from Spanish to English but no one seems to be able to interpret the cause of death, written as

y manifestó que hoy a las siete y media de la mañana falleció de esciática

Anyone have any ideas?

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They probably meant ciática:

ciática
Del lat. tardío sciatĭcus, der. de scia 'cadera'.

  1. f. Med. Neuralgia del nervio ciático.

The condition is called nearly the same in several languages, e.g. in English it's sciatica.

But how could someone die from sciatica? Are you sure the word didn't mean something else in the 19th century?

Yes, I am 100% sure esciatica and ciatica are the same thing: sciatica.
A search in the NTTLE shows us that this ailment has been called like that for 500+ years (ciatica for Spanish dictionaries, sciatica for Spanish-English dictionaries):

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About the "cause of death" part, it seems like "death by sciatica" was not unheard of in the 19th century. Just google sciatica as cause of death and you will find some info and conjectures, like those found in this Reddit thread.
The gist of it would be:

  • Death, not because of the actual sciatica, but of complications from a surgical intervention to try alleviate the pain.
  • Death from rheumatoid arthritis, which may have been mistaken for sciatic arthritis back then.
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    Painful as it may be, can somebody actually die of sciatica? It doesn't sound like a condition that can cause death.
    – Gustavson
    Oct 30 '17 at 0:09
  • Yeah, that's what we thought, too: doesn't seem like a cause of death. We have been wondering if it might be used in another sense in some contexts and in that time period. Thanks! Oct 30 '17 at 1:55
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    You can also find a few cases of both esciática and esciatica in Spanish literature in the CORDE.
    – Charlie
    Oct 30 '17 at 8:39
  • Revision 2 of the International Causes of Death gives it as a cause of death wolfbane.com/icd/icd2h.htm (1909 so close in time). It also seemed to still be in as late as version 8 of ICD but I have not found it later than that although that may just reflect my search skills or lack thereof..
    – mdewey
    Oct 30 '17 at 9:37
  • I feel doubtful about this answer and would encourage you to ask on Health SE. Nov 4 '17 at 4:00

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