Friday, November 03, 2006

Mania a potu

Not a Slovenian holiday dish. Not an excessive love of pottery. Actually a turn-of-the-(last)-century cause of death.

We had a call from a patron with a 1901 death certificate and no idea of what the cause of death meant: "mania a potic." After some searching through our twenty-odd 19th century medical dictionaries, I came to the conclusion that we were dealing with a typo, some word conflation, and an obscure term all in one.

"Potic" is probably a misspelling or misreading of "potio" (and we've all seen doctors' handwriting; this would be a very easy mistake to make.) "Potio" was the contemporary medical term for any sort of potion, and would have been easily confused with its near match "potus," the term for any sort of beverage.

Latin was the dominant language of medicine through the century's turn, and the compound "mania a potu" uses the standard Latin form of the fourth declension noun "potus" following the preposition "ab" (often shortened to "a").

So, we have mania from drink. Or, as John Shaw Billings defined it in his National Medical Dictionary, a "mania following prolonged alcoholic excess; more violent than delirium tremens."

Not every one of our medical lexicographers agrees with the second half of Billings' definition; many of them found it synonymous with delirium tremens. Here we can see, therefore, the beginning of the end for mania a potu as a separate diagnosis and its eventual replacement by the still-used term delirium tremens (which the National Library of Medicine's Medical Subject Headings prefer to call Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium).

Truly an example of a question that could not possibly have found its answer on Google. All hail the printed word!

2 comments:

Lisa Davidson said...

yes, very good and helpful. I'd been hunting down another misprint of it, "manu a potu," with no results until I happened to blunder into the correct phrase.
Thank you.

Dixie Armstrong said...

I was sure that I was hunting for the phrase "Mania a Poter." When I googled the term, I found several references to other death certificates/returns with the same spelling.

I'm grateful for this post. It changes what the coroner or doctor meant as the cause of death. I was thinking this ancestor died of insanity, instead of the ancestor probably trying to dry out from alcohol abuse and having a reaction, which would have been horrible, but it wasn't a permanent state, just a final one.

It also helps me understand possibly why this ancestor went in to obscurity. I'm so thankful in the many ways that I current medical treatment has changed so many lives!