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  • Family Health and Genealogy: Methods and Sources For Genealogists Compiling Family Health Histories - Part 2


    Published Date : April 18, 2003
    In this second part of “Methods and Sources for Compiling Family Health Histories” we will learn about the wealth of medical data that can be discovered by focusing on a few selected genealogical resources. These records will illustrate that family health information can be found not only in the usual places but in some rarely used documents going back as far as the early 1800s.

    Good genealogical research always begins at home, so let’s first look at a wonderful family source, the diary. Beside the everyday happenings in the life of a family, this record can be rich with information about illnesses and life events, such as births, marriages, and deaths. A diary written by a woman on and off over a period of twenty-seven years between 1931 and 1958 includes this excerpt describing the illness and death of her husband.

    “ ……took sick October the 9th at 1 pm Friday. We called the Dr. in the evening about 5 o’clock. He continually got worse and we took him to the hospital Saturday afternoon at … The Drs thot (thought) best to operate on him, so they prepared to operate at 4 o’clock and he passed away at 4:30 Sunday, October the 11th and was buried in the …cemetery October the 14th 1931.”

    While she doesn’t specifically mention his symptoms or a diagnosis, we can conclude that this man died following an acute illness that doctors felt could be resolved by surgery. This knowledge narrows the possible causes of death significantly. This record also can lead us to other documents that recorded the event, such as a death certificate or obituary, which may reveal an exact illness.  In July 1941 she mentions, “…I am terribly broken out with eczema and don’t feel very well.”  The skin condition is mentioned several more times in the diary entries, indicating she had a chronic condition, which sometimes flared up.  Old letters can also contain the same kind of information and should be carefully read to glean specific knowledge about family health.

    Another home source that can be a wealth of information are old photographs, home movies, and videos. It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words! If we really take a good look, what do we see? With a good analysis of a photo or movie, the physical characteristics needed for a family health history can be documented. For example:

    1)      Body Structure: thin, stocky, obese, tall, short, etc,

    2)      Height and weight estimates

    3)      Hair: body or facial, color or bald, form (thick, thin, straight, wavy, curly, kinky, etc.)

    4)      Facial Features: nose (bulbous, short, thin, reddened, etc.), ears (large, small, jug handled, etc,), lips (thick, thin, cleft, etc,), cheeks (red, spider veined, fat, etc.)

    5)      Eyes: color, shape (round or oval), widely spaced apart, protruding, etc.

    6)      Skin: color (yellow, red, very pale, etc.), freckles, birthmarks, scars, etc.

    7)      Sight: glasses, squinting, etc.

    8)      Teeth: buck teeth, toothless, missing teeth, or perhaps dentures can be seen

    9)      Unusual Characteristics: extremities (missing digits, color, etc.), cane or crutches, prosthesis, unusual gait when walking, smoking, etc.

    A complete and proper analysis can be very important if a specific genetic trait or illness (such as baldness, cleft palate, glaucoma, thyroid disease or Downs syndrome) runs in a family. This kind of information can help identify which branch of the family has been the carrier.

    When a person dies, a myriad of records both public and private are created that document various aspects of this type of event. The death certificate is the document used the most by genealogists in connection with death. We look at the date, place, and hope for a date of birth, birthplace, next of kin, and parents’ names. But this record was created because the person died, so we should also be very interested in what it has to say about that happening. For the family health history we will want to carefully study the medical information to learn what can be added to our data. First examine the cause of death, then the contributing, or secondary, factors leading to the death. The doctor may report an ancestor died of pneumonia but that the contributing cause was a stroke and/or heart disease and/or diabetes. In this case, these secondary problems are more important to the entire health picture for this ancestor than the immediate and fatal one.

    The death certificate will often tell us how long the person was ill (days, weeks, years), where the death occurred (at home, at hospital, at work, on the street, etc.), and how old the person was at the time he died.  These factors can also be significant in the analysis of the person’s overall health situation.  Other information that can be helpful as clues for further investigation include the name of the doctor, hospital, mortuary, and cemetery, as well as the circumstances of the death. Was this an accidental or intentional death? If so, there may be a coroner’s report or newspaper account of the event we should be examining. One ancestor’s death certificate indicated he died of severe burns sustained in an accident. The subsequent reading of the coroner’s report and extensive newspaper coverage revealed he was involved in an explosion at a brewery that killed a second person and severely injured a third. The survivor told the world what had happened to cause the explosion and fire that followed.

    Mortuary records can contain significant personal information about your ancestor’s health. Some of the data that might be found in an ancestor’s file includes: 1) a death certificate; 2) an obituary; 3) the cause of death; 4) a personal history for the obituary (which may have information the obituary did not contain); 5) the type of embalming; and 6) the date/ place of burial.  Cemetery records can provide unexpected health and personal knowledge as well. One New Jersey cemetery provided previously unrecorded causes of death for family members buried there Since some states are now blocking out the cause of death on their certificates, these other sources are becoming very important for finding medical information about family members.

    A burial permit is another record created in certain time frames and areas that can provide medical information. One permit found in Davenport, Iowa, provided the only documentation found to date about the life and death of a great uncle who was born a twin in 1886. This document tells us the child was six days old when he died at home on July 18, 1886, of inanition (total lack of food, starvation). The city burial register in Davenport during the 1890s provides a person’s name, sex, color, age, occupation, marital status, length of residence in Davenport, date and place of death, cause of death, duration of disease, name of physician, date and place of burial. At a time long before death certificates are available, this record gives us the equivalent medical knowledge we need for the family health history.

    The records of the burial of inmates at the Ontario County, New York, Poorhouse in the 1880s reveal medical information not likely to be found elsewhere. In addition to providing the person’s name, place of usual residence, age, and date of death, these records give us insight into their medical history. In one case the notation was “died sudden…was walking around a few moments before he died” and another stated “died sudden in a fit.” In other entries we find comments about the person’s overall health, such as “paralyzed,” “almost totally blind,” “whiskey consumption,” and “dwarf.”  If a descendent of this person were looking for an ancestor of short stature, this would be an important find to help him trace the genetic origins of this condition.

    Federal, state, and local court records often can provide information about a family member found nowhere else. Ordinary citizens have appeared in court to resolve problems, such as paternity (e.g. Bastardy Bonds) or adoption issues, that can impact the family history. As discussed in the first column of this series, a family health history includes only blood relatives who share a common gene pool. Thus, it is crucial that the paternity of each member of the family is determined correctly.

    Then there are court records that can identify medical conditions outright, such as a petition to the court by a man for tax-exempt status because he is blind. Repeated court appearances by an ancestor for public drunkenness or drunk driving could indicate he was addicted to alcohol. Guardianship of persons unable to care for themselves or handle their own affairs can establish the person’s condition. One such case is found in the 1802 Anne Arundel County, Maryland Chancery Court Papers #1129, Maryland Hall of Records, regarding the appointment of a guardian for “William Benson, a lunatic.” His father’s will entrusted William’s care to his sister and brother-in-law. However, they determined to move to another state and William did not want to go. So, his sister and her husband went to court to prove his lunacy and have others appointed as trustees for William and his estate. The court found that William was “…a lunatic and incapable of the government of himself or his property and has been for 24 years with some lucid intervals but not of long duration- said state of lunacy was occasioned by birth.”

    In the next column of this series, “Methods and Sources for Compiling Family Health Histories, Part III,” we will continue to examine selected genealogical records that provide family health information, focusing on census, newspaper and military records.

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