Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Medical Family History and Genealogy

I just picked up the latest issue of Prevention magazine (November 2011) and to my surprise, found an article entitled "But It Doesn't Run In My Family: Closing the Gaps in your knowledge of Your Family Tree can quite literally save your Life" by Carol Withers (pp. 42-50). The article is a timely one for USians as since 2004, November's Thanksgiving holiday has been National Family History Day. (It's time we did something similar in Canada.)

It's a nice starter article, but sadly, nowhere does it refer to knowledgable genealogists or family historians, or genealogy/family history/personal DNA testing. And although a caption suggests family photographs might hold medical secrets, there's no discussion of this in the article.

Joann Boughman of the American Society of Human Genetics is quoted as saying that every family has "an aunt or a cousin who's the keeper of the secrets." Well, that same auntie or kissing cousin might well be the family historian. If so, she likely already has much of the family medical information handy. She's been tirelessly working away in the archives for years, and would be so happy to hear from you.

A sidebar in the article does direct readers to several on-line United States websites with good information - the United States Surgeon General's Family Health History Initiative, The U. S. Centres for Disease Control Family History section, The U.S. National Institutes of Health and the U.S. National Society of Genetic Counselors.

Each site has information on the medical reasons to research your family history and often includes an easy to use on-line guide or tool. The U.S. National Society of Genetic Counselors, for instance, has brief instructions on drawing out a genogram as your family tree. If you'd like a computerized way to do that, I can recommend the GenoPro programme which has a free version and a guide on-line for using its customizable medical symbols. Genograms are particularly useful when drawing up trees that include medical conditions, causes of death, adoptions and fostering situations, and aunts, uncles and cousins, etc. or even important non-family relationships.

But don't neglect genealogical and other historical and medical sources for further information. An 'antique' term for a cause of death for one Prevention editor's long ago relative is questioned - "nightmare" (page 50). This was likely startling information to a 21 century family, as other old causes of death might be, 'visitation of god', for example, or 'rising of the lights' or 'surfeit' or 'nostalgia'. 1

Like other terms for causes of death, 'nightmare' may historically have had, in different cultures and over time, different meanings than our modern idea of a 'bad dream'. One suggestion is given in this article by a medical historian, Janet Golden, as death during sleep,"gasping from a stroke or arrhythmia" (page 50), a diagnosis that does have quite modern connections.

The person named was Amaziah Branch who I take to be the same Amaziah Branch, teacher, preacher and poet, mentioned in an 1875 book as a former resident of Pompey Village in New York, USA.

"The last named, was the first school teacher at this place and at La Fayette Village. He died at Dr. S. W. Park's, of nightmare, in about 1818. He is said to have been one of the good men of the earth. He was poor, but well educated. He came from Massachusetts." 2

The medical historian's "guess" (page 50) could be correct, but
a genealogist would be on the hunt for any more contemporary records or mentions of his death. A note from 1875 concerning a death "about 1818" gives a clue, but it's not the best evidence.

The text makes it clear Dr. Park was a medical doctor. If there was evidence Amaziah Branch was staying with him under medical care that might suggest a critical or chronic illness, but you might think a doctor would have given a more specific cause of death. Could 'nightmare' relate to a medical treatment? Or fever? How old was Amaziah? (The fragmentary information on-line suggests about 1741 for his birth which would make him about 77 at death.) What happened to other family members? His wife also apparently died suddenly but just a few days after childbirth, so that cause might be quite different.3

And most importantly, might there be something more specific shown in a burial or other church record? And, in the burial records for around 1818, or in any medical records (Dr. Park's?) or publications from that time and area, what other causes of death are seen? Did anyone else die of 'nightmare' ?

1 See first Antiquus Morbus, Rudy Schmidt's website, for old medical terms and their explanations.

2 From the Internet Archive, 18 October 2011, digitized for the Making of America Project, Re-union of the sons and daughters of the old town of Pompey: held at Pompey Hill, June 29, 1871 : proceedings of the meeting, speeches, toasts, and other incidents of the occasion : also, a history of the town, reminiscences and biographical sketches of its early inhabitants. Published by Direction of the Reunion Committee, Pompey, 1875. Printed at Syracruse, New York: Courier Printing Company, 1875. Quotation from printed page 205, .pdf version.

3 Amaziah Branch wrote "An elegiac poem, on the death of Mrs. Sarah Branch;: who died suddenly, August 2, 1784: leaving an infant of eleven days old" (Bennington, Vermont: Haswell & Russell., 1789, 19 pages). See Open Library for reprint details.

1 comment:

Joan said...

Good post! Whilst tracking ancestors, I have come across several diseases or predispositions that have come down through one line or another. Surprisingly, when I mention my findings to family members, they just look at me and nod vacantly. Not sure just what to do with the information. "I told you so" seems so lame.