Southwestern States Mission: July Sick Days

By May 19, 2013

One of the reasons I started the Southwestern States Mission series was to motivate myself to analyze missionary health. I had been putting it off for a while and have continued to do so because it?s a big, daunting topic. It?s time to bite the bullet. I?ve started coding diary entries for health status by month. [1] Below is a summary of my first-draft results for July 1900 and 1901. I have included only the five travelling missionaries.

For each entry I looked at the health of three ?people?: the diarist, their companion, and anybody else. I categorized the cause (illness, injury, insect bite, etc) and ranked the degree of influence on the diarist?s work that day from 1 – no impact, to 4 – severe impact. [2] Below is a table summarizing how often the missionaries reported some type of medical incident.

SWSM July Sick Days 20130518a

The big culprits were malaria(-like fevers) and boils/abscesses. I hope to produce more detailed analyses later, but for now, my first impression is: missionary health was a big deal, at least in July.

The ?Southwestern States Mission? seriesĀ (homepage) examines mission life in (mostly) Texas around 1900.

[1] The big difficulty in coding diaries is the soul-destroying drudgery of it all. There is, however, nothing I can do about it and still learn everything I want to learn from the texts. The second biggest difficulty is consistency—making sure that Elder Brooks?s cold on the first day get?s coded according to the same criteria as Elder Jones?s on the last day. Also: there is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, that you cannot get the categories and criteria clarified until you?ve done at least a third of the original coding, at which point you have to start over. There is also no guarantee that you still won?t have blind spots. It?s almost always messy and subjective and frustrating. I generally aim for ?reproducible? rather than ?satisfyingly accurate and precise? and then try to combine the code analysis with other forms of analysis. Hopefully performing multiple types of analysis reduces the size of the blind spots.

[2] The categories: s: sick, infectious disease; i: injury; h: sunburn, heat exhaustion, etc; e: boil, insect bite, etc; f: fatigue; m: mental illness. The degrees of influence: 0: no health related info; 1: regular work despite discomfort; 2: reduced work; 3: no work, but not wiped-out sick; 4: no work, wiped-out sick. I also noted other related occurrences like: n: nap; d: drugs; a: administered; p: prayed. If I ever catch one of them going to a doctor, I?ll have to add a category for that.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Wow. Amazing to see your process, and so amusing what you mention about the irrevocably-decreed law.

    Comment by Amy T — May 19, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

  2. This is great work, Edje.

    Comment by Ben P — May 19, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

  3. Love the work, Edje. It’s something I’ve been curious about for awhile as well. I also wonder if there’s a correlation between “sick days” and “we have nothing going on” days. They seemed to be heavily correlated in my mission.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 20, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

  4. Thanks for the comments, Amy, Ben, and J Stuart.

    J Stuart: I only know of one case of malingering identified as such in the diaries (though the mission president occasionally complains about what he perceives as hypochondria among the Elders). Most of the sick days above are from malaria and abscesses, both of which are quite painful and potentially fatal, even with treatment. With all the violent shivering, vomiting, and necrotizing sores described in the diaries, I doubt the Elders were fudging in July.

    If they did avoid work, it was probably in going for mail. Since they didn’t have a fixed address, they had their mail forwarded to a post office “near” where they were working. Sometimes they spend hours every day hiking from where they were working to the post office, ostensibly looking for instructions from mission leaders. I’ve seen mission circulars decrying the practice and calling for better planning.

    Another possibility for killing time with a medical cover was heat exhaustion. The missionaries do not usually label heat as a medical condition; they just write that it was very hot so we stopped in the woods and took a nap. Between the hot, humid, bug-infested nights and the sweltering days, a shaded afternoon nap was probably prudent. That said, it was always hot and they didn’t always take naps, so maybe there was a non-medical aspect.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 20, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

  5. After following Elder Jones’s mission, I’m not going to begrudge any of those elders any hour they napped or tended to their wounds and illnesses. I couldn’t have kept up with them!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 20, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

  6. Ardis: for sure. Looking at the chart in the OP, my initial impression was dominated by the 3s and 4s—all the days they missed working completely. The 2s might tell a more interesting story, however, that of how often they worked through their malaria or hobbled mile after mile with an infected foot.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 20, 2013 @ 4:46 pm


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