Did you inherit grandpa’s nose? Are your eyes the same color as great-aunt Anna? Your genetic inheritance determines these, and other, physical characteristics. Medical conditions can be inherited as well as the risk of developing certain diseases. As a genealogist, you collect a lot of information about your ancestors. We tend to focus on dates and places – birth, marriage, death, occupation, travel. Do you also record information about illnesses? What do you do with that information?
October is Family History Month. It is a time for collecting and organizing information about your family. I suggest that you also develop a systematic plan for gathering and recording your family’s health history. Thanksgiving is National Family History Day, as declared by the U.S. Surgeon General. 
What are some genealogical sources of health information? Well known sources include death certificates and obituaries. Less well known sources include various census records and county histories.
- Death certificates. Usually list cause of death and contributing factors.
- Family members. At your next family gathering, ask questions about your ancestors’ medical and health histories. Someone might remember that your cousin twice removed had kidney stones and that her mother died from the same thing! Label this information as ‘tentative’. Remember to cite source and date.
- Obituaries. Cause of death sometimes listed. “A lingering illness” suggests illnesses such as cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease/ emphysema, dementia, heart failure, kidney disease, neurologic disease or stroke. Following an accident, people may survive for years with various levels of disability. “A sudden illness” suggests a more acute condition although the person may have had symptoms for days, weeks or months.
- Birth certificates. May list weeks of gestation, which could indicate prematurity. May also report complications of pregnancy suffered by the mother.
- County death records. Usually a list of names, dates and cause of death. Availability of these records varies widely. I found some county death records in Texas for the years 1917-1920 when causes of death were overwhelmingly ‘influenza’ and ‘pneumonia’.
- Look for information in newspaper social columns. “Mrs. Mary Adams returned home Tuesday from Oklahoma City where she attended the funeral of her sister, Susie, who died from pneumonia.” A brief death notice may follow an earlier story about an accident or that the person had been admitted to the hospital. Obviously, before our recent privacy laws went into effect!
- Published and unpublished family and county histories. Look for details that may lead you to search for other records. “John James died after falling off a horse. He lingered, speechless, for three days.” “Marilyn Samuels spent her last years in a tuberculosis sanitarium.”
- Reports of a woman’s death soon after giving birth. Sarah Ostrander Richards, my great-great grandmother, probably died from complications associated with childbirth. Here is the evidence: “Mr. [Nathaniel] Richards second wife was Miss Sarah Ostrander, born June 20, 1801 and died March 27, 1836. She had one son, Ostrander, born March 20, 1836.” 
CENSUS RECORDS show limited health information.
- Decennial Census records. Some included space to check if the person was ‘deaf, dumb, or blind’. (1850 census, column 13; 1860, column 14; 1870, column 18; 1880, columns 16-19; 1885, columns 16-29). If person is ‘inmate’/ patient of hospital or other institution, search for other clues about why person is there.
- Census mortality schedules, data gathered from 1850 through 1885. In general, these schedules listed persons who died within 12 months before the census. Cause of death was one recorded item.
- 1880 census supplemental forms: Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes (wording as posted on NARA website):  Information limited to the named categories.
- Schedule 2: Insane
- Schedule 3: Idiots
- Schedule 4: Deaf- Mute
- Schedule 5: Blind
- Schedule 6: Homeless Children
- Schedule 7: Prisoners
- Schedule 7a: Pauper and Indigent
How do you document your family’s health history? One method uses the U.S. Surgeon General’s website, My Family Health Portrait.
Other websites that you may find helpful (listed alphabetically by author):
Centers for Disease Control: Family Health History. https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/
Family Search Blog: 4 steps to starting a health history. Includes a downloadable Family Health History form. URL: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/4-steps-starting-health-history/
Genetic Alliance: An easy to follow booklet, “Does it run in the family: A guide to family health history.” URL: http://www.geneticalliance.org/sites/default/files/GuideToFHH/GuidetoFHH.pdf
Laura Landro, 30 March 2014, New Tools to Track Your Family Health History, Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/no-headline-available-1395070890
Donna Prezcha, Tracing your health history, URL: https://www.genealogy.com/articles/research/79_donna.html
Why is it important to know my family medical history? URL: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/inheritance/familyhistory
Vibrant Life, 6 Medical History Questions You Should Ask Family, Article 6, 19 July, unknown year; http://www.vibrantlife.com/?p=2365
In this post, I presented common and less common sources of family health information. Add to your to-do list: Develop method to collect and record family health information. Add family health information to records. Use multiple sources.
I collect family health information but haven’t routinely documented the information in a meaningful way. Until I used the Surgeon General’s website, I only vaguely understood the importance of a genetic health history. ‘Cause of death’ is an item on forms that I use.
What I learned: nothing new at this time. However, my learning curve for this information has evolved over the past 5-6 years.
What helped: Knowing about the Surgeon General’s website. I presented this information to nursing students for many years.
What didn’t help: nothing really.
TO- DO: Review family health and medical information collected to date. Use more diverse sources of information. Record individual health and medical information on research logs.
 Surgeon General’s Family Health History Initiative website, URL: https://www.hhs.gov/programs/prevention-and-wellness/family-health-history/about-family-health-history/index.html
 J. B. Stephens, Compiler, History and Directory of Newton and Ransom Townships, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania (Montrose, Pennsylvania: J.B. Stephens, 1912), p. 86; digital images, Pennsylvania State University Libraries Digital Library Collections, (http://collection1.libraries.psu.edu/cdm4 : accessed, viewed, downloaded 2 July 2010; Nathaniel Richards family – 3 wives and their children.
 Blank copies of Census forms available from National Archives and Records Administration: https://www.archives.gov/research/genealogy/charts-forms
 See note number 3.
 See note number 3.
© Susan Posten Ellerbee and Posting Family Roots, 2018