Marasmus

Until today, I’d never heard or read the term “marasmus.”

But this morning I had some free time before going to work so I was searching Findagrave.com and the birth and death records on the West Virginia Archives.

I do this sometimes, putting in a family surname and narrowing the search by county and date. Yes, this is a random way to approach genealogy, but I occasionally use the tactic anyway because it can yield interesting, albeit sometimes tragic, results.

Today was one of those times.

Findagrave.com popped up with a memorial for thirteen-day-old baby. When I placed her on my family tree, she turned out to have been my father’s cousin (my grandfather’s brother’s daughter).

Melba Jarushire Bird (as FIndagrave lists her) was born at the very end of December 1929 and died on January 9, 1930.

She was either twelve, thirteen, or fourteen days old (depending if you believe the death certificate, Findagrave, or the death register). Her name wasn’t actually Melba Jarushire either, at least not according to the legal documents. It was Melva Jearline.

Cause of death was listed as marasmus, which Healthline defines as: “… a form of severe malnutrition. It can occur in anyone who has severe malnutrition, but it usually occurs in children. It typically occurs in developing countries. Marasmus can be life-threatening, but you can get treatment for it.

Well. That gave me pause.

To think Dad’s cousin, born three years after him in nearly the same place, died of what sounds like starvation … I can hardly wrap my brain around it.

Although Melva’s death technically happened during the Great Depression, I’m not sure that was the root cause. The Depression started in the US with the stock market crash in October 1929. Would two months of inadequate nutrition at the end of a pregnancy be enough to cause malnutrition severe enough that the child would die?

I don’t know.

I do know Melva’s parents had a son born in 1932, before losing another child in 1939, a daughter who lived only a day.

It’s impossible to imagine the grief they must have felt both with Melva and their second daughter, which makes the fact that their son lived until the age of 73 seem almost a miracle.

My grandparents raised my father and his sister during these years. In the 1930 census, the two families are on the same page, making them neighbors as well as relations. Melva’s father was a laborer, as was my grandfather.

It seems incredible that only now am I beginning to see the struggle these young families went through trying to survive.

Grandma was always extremely strict about not wasting anything. As a child, I didn’t understand. Later, as an adult, I barely thought about it.

Now, however, I think I begin to understand.

To have lived through such times, where these couple’s (and I’m sure many others’) very survival — and worse, the survival of their children — may have been in doubt, would leave a person forever determined to never live that way again.

Also, and this may seem a bit of a stretch to some, reading about this happening in my own family gives me empathy for parents around the world who take what seems to us to be ridiculous chances to migrate somewhere that seems to promise a better future. And I can tell you this, if I’d seen one of my children die of malnutrition, I think I would be quite likely to take any risk necessary to help make sure I didn’t lose another the same way.

Addendum: Since writing this, several friends have pointed out malnutrition could have been caused by issues other than lack of food — cleft palate inability to digest milk, or any number of physical maladies. I was viewing my father’s cousin’s death through the lens of a person raised much later, when such issues would have been problematic, but not life-threatening. Still, however it happened, it’s clear this family suffered their share of tragedy.

6 thoughts on “Marasmus

  1. My wife loves genealogy too, and apparently a child in her family way back in early 1900s died in our house due to mysterious ailments that sound a lot like malnutrition. Life back then must have been so much harder. At one time, twelve people used to live in our old farmhouse. I don’t know how they did it. We’re running out of room with just three.

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    • When I first started doing genealogy, it was mostly dates and learning about who fought in the Civil War. But the deeper I read into the records, the more I get caught up in the drama of daily life. It’s amazing the things we’ve learned to take for granted that our ancestors would have found amazing.

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    • Typo! Thanks for catching! I’ve corrected it. Two months before Melva was born, which makes me wonder if that amount of time was enough to affect her. My guess is probably not. I do wonder what condition her mother must have been in because I’ve always heard a mother’s body will deplete itself to keep an unborn child alive, although I don’t know if that’s true.

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