The "Historiae morborum" of the General Practitioner Franz von Ottenthal





Between 1847 and 1899, Franz von Ottenthal (1818-1899) conducted a surgery as a General Practitioner in Sand in Taufers (the main town in the District of Taufers). The surgery’s catchment-area comprised of the whole of the Taufer Ahrntal, a side valley of the Tyrolean Pustertal. In 1847, 10.315 inhabitants were registered in the district.



Neumelans Castle in Campo Tures/Sand in Taufers where Ottenthal lived with his family and where he had established his practice (photograph, approx. 1910, private archive of Ing. Horst Schober, Hall i. T.) 

Franz v. Ottenthal’s occupation can be followed very well because in 1998, a team of the State Records Office (in particular Dr. Christine Roilo) managed to uncover a yet unknown source of information. A number of note books (several labelled as "Historiae Morborum"), were found in the attic of Ottenthal's residence in Sand in Taufers, which is to this day still in family possession. The books in which the doctor diligently noted down the observation of his patients, day by day, year after year, are in office format, though varying in thickness. The structure of the entries, entered in Latin, resembles records in a data base: the basic principle is quite similar, namely the consecutive number being allocated only once a year. Roughly seen, each entry consists of six fields set with details of: the patients’ names, age, gender, places of residence, dates of visit and a log of doctor-patient conversation with notes on both, the patients´ and doctor´s observations. Finally, the therapy and the doctor's fee or proceeds from the sale of medicine from his own pharmaceutical supplies can be identified. On average, four of these entries can be found on each page of the medical journal. Ottenthal wrote more than 85,000 entries during his surgery time, lasting more than fifty years. But since there are multiple appointments listed under each consecutive number, the actual number of appointments is considerably higher: only after the completion of the project work will an exact figure be evident. And the actual number of Ottenthal´s patients, whose medical histories can be traced over several years, can be established.

Moreover, the social dimension of Ottenthal´s clientele will only become comprehensible after the completion of the project work and intensive analyses on questions of mobility, marital status, birth rate, kinship structure, etc. have been made, possibly after the consultation of other parallel reference records (e.g. Church Register; District Records). Whilst the hitherto existing research literature dealt first and foremost with the urban situation and its entirely different conditions, concerning environmental pollution, danger of infection and mortality rate pattern, the "Historiae Morborum" documents the state of health of an almost exclusively rural population for the first time, in a region geographically and socially marked by unfavourable conditions (mountains, extreme climatic conditions, long, hard winters, inadequate infrastructure and connections). In contrast to urban areas, research on the state of health in rural landscapes is still in its infancy. This is primarily due to the poor availability of such sources of interest. Although Ottenthal’s habit of keeping records of his patients was certainly not unusual but most likely a common mode, hardly any similar records have survived. Therefore, Ottenthal´s almost complete legacy seems to represent a fortunate exception. The medical journals provide an important source for fundamental research in various fields, not only concerning the limited area of Taufers, but the whole inner alpine region.