February is Heart Health month and in early February, we celebrated National Wear Red Day to raise awareness of heart disease and strokes in women. Cardiovascular disease is prevalent in some of my family lines, and I expect many of yours, too.
Let’s explore what our ancestors’ medical history can tell us about them.
Today let’s talk about what I call “medical genealogy”. (Yes, I made that term up. 🙂 )
Your Ancestors + Medical Genealogy
Death certificates are a common resource used by genealogists. As researchers, we are looking for the deceased’s personal data including birth and death dates and (fingers crossed!) parent’s names. The location of the deceased’s residence and place of burial is also information found on the death certificate.
No doubt about it. Death certificates are a tremendous genealogical resource. [Read more about the types information found on a death certificate.]
More out of curiosity than anything else, genealogists will note the cause of death. but we fail to use the listed cause of death to provide clues and information about our ancestor(s).
Some of you may know I have a medical background, so my ancestors’ causes of death piqued my interest in what this section of the certificate could tell me about him/her.
The cause of death does not necessarily advance the family back another generation, but can give clues about our ancestor’s lifestyle that will point the way back to more potential clues and records to search.
I encourage you to take a closer look at your ancestors’ causes of death. Certainly many people succumbed to communicable diseases such as TB or influenza that are (thankfully) much better managed today.
Medical Genealogy: What to Consider When Evaluating An Ancestor’s Cause of Death
Other causes of death that can give us information about our ancestors.
- Was an ancestor’s death caused by an accident?
- Was death cause by a chronic disease or a sudden illness?
- Was the same illness the cause of multiple deaths in a family?
- Did an illness or disease cross generations?
Death certificates are a relatively “new” thing in the records. In North Carolina, death certificates began in 1913. Knowing your family’s medical history is important not just to your research. Obviously it is important to your health as well. Knowing potential health risks that run in your family is important when addressing your own health issues.
Do you see a pattern in your ancestors’ deaths? Did many of the adult deaths result from a heart attack? Dementia? Stroke? All represent cardiovascular disease that may be present in the family? Did many of the women die as a result of breast cancer?
See what patterns you notice. Do they still exist within your family today?
2. Early Deaths
Did a number of your ancestors die at a relatively young age?
Did a disproportionate number of children die in childhood or at about the same age? This could represent more than just the usual childhood diseases. This could represent an unknown inherited disease within the family such as asthma (usually managed well by today’s medical professionals) , cystic fibrosis or other genetic disorder.
3. Accidents/Foul Play
Was your ancestor killed in an accident? Or by foul play?
This can give you insight into an ancestor’s life style.
Was he/she a risk taker?
Were your ancestor killed in a farming accident? Then look for your ancestors in rural communities.
If your ancestor met with foul play, then what was his character?
Importantly, if your ancestor’s cause of death was an accident or foul play, then you know to look further for records. Look for newspaper articles, possible court records, inquests and jail records.
In other words….
Consider if the manner in which your ancestor died would have likely created more types of records.
Admittedly, deciphering the meaning of some archaic medical terms can be a bit difficult. Find help Rudy’s List of Archaic Medial Terms and Breaking the Medical Code: Understanding Outdated Medical Terminology.
Next time you are evaluating your ancestor’s death record, take time to make sure you get ALL of the potential information. You may be quite surprised by what you learn.
Other posts of interest:
- Medical Genealogy + A Photograph = A Young Woman’s Story
- 7 Places To Start Finding An Ancestor’s Death Date
- How to Find Where Your Ancestors Are Buried
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