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  • Family Health and Genealogy: Methods and Sources For Genealogists Compiling Family Health Histories - Part 3

    Norma Storrs Keating

    Published Date : June 13, 2003

    In part three of “Methods and Sources for Compiling Family Health Histories” we will continue to explore selected genealogical resources that illustrate the kinds of family health information available not only in the usual places but in some rarely used documents going back as far as the early 1800s.

    Federal census records contained medical and health information questions between 1830 and 1910. In 1830 enumerators asked if any person was deaf and dumb or blind. By 1840 a category for “insane” had been added to the questions. Unfortunately, since individuals were not listed by name in those census years, we cannot know exactly which person was afflicted, only that the condition(s) did exist in the family.

    Beginning with the 1850 census each individual was enumerated by name, making the information much more valuable in terms of family health. Question 12 in 1850 asked whether a person was deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, a pauper, or a convict. Enumerators were instructed to state the character of the infirmity or misfortune when they visited a poorhouse, asylum for the blind or idiotic, or other charitable institutions. The 1860 census repeated this question.

    In the 1870 census, question 18 was substantially the same “whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane or idiotic.” Enumerators were instructed to include in this category only those people who were totally blind, with undoubted insanity, and unable to both hear and speak. If someone was deaf without the loss of speech, he was not to be included.

    The 1880 census actually had a health heading that included six questions (census numbers 15 to 20):

    1) Is the person sick or temporarily disabled so as to be unable to attend to ordinary business duties? If so, what is the sickness or disability?
    2) Blind
    3) Deaf and Dumb
    4) Idiotic
    5) Insane
    6) Maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled

    There were three health questions asked on the 1890 census

    1) Whether suffering from acute or chronic disease. If so, name of disease and length of time afflicted
    2) Whether defective in mind, sight, hearing of speech
    3) Whether crippled, maimed, deformed. If so, name of defect.

    It is very unfortunate that this census was almost totally destroyed. These very specific health questions would have been extremely valuable for gathering family health information.

    Also, beginning with the 1890 census, women were asked about their reproductive history. The questions “How many children have you had?” and “How many of those children are still living?” appeared in the 1890, 1900, and 1910 censuses. The 1890 census was the last census to focus so much on health issues in the general population. Unfortunately, specific questions about physical and mental disabilities do not appear again in census schedules after that time. General questions in later unemployment schedules lead to implications of illness, such as the 1930 census questions: “If person has no job is he able to do work of any kind?” and “If person did not work yesterday, why not? Sickness?”

    Of course, census records can be helpful to the family health historian by providing information regarding the ethnic backgrounds of family members. This knowledge can be very important to a researcher since many genetic illnesses are tied to specific areas of the world and ethnic groups. Thus, the questions indicating the birthplace and mother tongue of each enumerated person and their parents can be invaluable for family health histories. These answers should be carefully noted and documented for each family member found in a census.

    Likewise, a person’s occupation can have a direct impact upon their health. Census records have provided occupational information since 1820 when indication was made for involvement in agricultural, commercial, or manufacturing endeavors. The questions became more complex with each census and varied from time to time as well.

    By 1930 enumerators wanted to know exact information:

    1) Occupation - trade, profession, or particular kind of work,
    2) Industry - industry or business, for example cotton mill, shipyard, public school
    3) Whether actually worked yesterday
    4) Number on farm schedule

    There was an entire “Unemployment Schedule” to be filled out if a person was out of work. This lifestyle information, taken with medical data, can give the family health history more accurate indicators for potential health patterns.

    Military service can also affect health, especially if an ancestor served in a recent war and came into contact with chemical weapons. Obviously, being wounded or contracting an exotic disease while overseas can have lifelong consequences. The 1840 census was the first to ask any questions related to military service — in this case, the ages of Revolutionary War pensioners. Military information was not required again until1890. Civil War veterans or their widows were indicated in the 1900 and 1910 censuses. The 1930 enumeration asked whether a person was a war veteran and, if so, which war. This census information can lead to the discovery of military records that provide health data for your ancestors.

    The census mortality schedules for 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 provide nationwide, state-by-state, death registers before vital records were kept in any uniform or universal way in the United States. These special schedules record deaths between June 1st and May 31st of 1849-50, 1859-60, 1869-70, and 1879-80. Beside the general identifying information such as name, age, or sex, these records provide the month of death, disease or cause of death, and how long a person was ill. The 1880 schedule also asked where the disease was contracted.

    State census records can provide similar kinds of health, country of origin, military, and occupational information. If an ancestor lived in a state that took any census, be sure to check it. Many of the states asked for more information than the federal records, and some also have mortality schedules. Iowa and New York State are good examples of states that wanted more from their inhabitants. While state census records certainly are not equal in content, they are a valuable source for adding information about ancestors during the ten-year gaps between the federal records.

    Many military records contain medical data from the late 1700s to 1912 and later. The information usually includes service injuries or hospital treatments an ancestor may have endured during his military years. It could also include death information if he died while in service. If an ancestor applied for an Invalid Pension, the medical information contained in the pension packet will be well documented since the government wanted to be sure the applicant deserved that pension! As an example, the medical information on the 1890 pension application for Michael Keating included

    “He is now unable to earn a support by reason of deafness of the left ear, dislocation of the left elbow and chronic diarrhea every summer since his discharge from the service which was contracted as he believes at Mobile, Alabama during his period of enlistment.” 

    His pension packet contained a surgeon’s certificate signed by a doctor after he gave Mr. Keating a complete physical exam. It corroborates the applicant’s statements. The packet also has the report of Mr. Keating’s death in 1904. Thus, we have an 1890 doctor’s report detailing the medical problems for this Civil War soldier, which we can use in compiling a family health history.

    There are several other types of military records that could provide medical information about ancestors who were in the military. For example, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has the records of annual medical exams of Naval Academy midshipmen (1863-1915) that include physical attributes, vision and hearing scores, illnesses and injuries, and some notations regarding hereditary diseases. NARA Record Group #94: Records of the Adjutant General’s Office 1780-1917, includes the medical records of civilians (1894-1912), birth records (1884-1912), death records of civilians (1884-1912), and medical histories of posts.

    Newspapers are a rich source of information often overlooked by genealogists. News stories about accidents, homicides, suicides, or natural disasters can include the names of people affected and give details about their injuries or involvement. Obituaries may include not only the date of death, but also, the cause of death, age, occupation, military service, and more. A family suggestion of donations to a specific medical charity or foundation can provide a clue to the illness or cause of death. Local papers will often include vital record information, providing a person’s name, date, place of death, cause of death, date and place of birth, and names of family members. Probate announcements can provide a clue to the death of a person and lead to other records. Social news columns may mention that someone is ill in the hospital or if a relative had returned home to tend to an invalid or sick family member.  During times of war local papers often carried stories about local men serving in the armed forces and lists of casualties. All of this news can supply the family historian with invaluable information for the health history.

    There are many, many more records available that can provide medical and health information about our family members and ancestors. Hopefully, the resources and examples discussed in the last three columns will serve as illustrations of what can be discovered and encourage genealogists to delve into these goldmines of health history information. In the next column of this series, we will talk about genes, traits, and ethnic genetic disorders and why it is vital to record genetic information on a family health history.


    Bohme, Frederick G. Twenty Censuses: Population and Housing Questions 1790-1980. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, October 1979. Reprinted by Heritage Quest, Orting, WA.

    Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Leubking, eds. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1997.

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