I saw a news story recently about medical studies verifying that coronary disease is hereditary. Now, you may not think that this is earth-shattering news, but Intermountain Healthcare’s LDS Hospital has begun a remarkable study. On 9 May 2007, it launched the Intermountain Genealogical Registry, a lineage-based population database containing the pedigrees of more than 10 million individuals–the largest in the United States–who have lived or whose descendants have lived in the intermountain region of the United States. The purpose of this groundbreaking new database is to enhance the discovery of genetic factors that contribute to cardiovascular diseases through the study of a large population of patients in which cardiovascular diseases appear to cluster in certain families.
Meanwhile, the Genome Project continues to identify specific genes that cause or contribute to physical attributes in families and individuals, including a predisposition to develop particular medical conditions. If you are considering having your DNA tested, it is possible that the results will connect you to other persons to whom you are genetically related. As a result, you may also begin studying death certificates and causes of death much more carefully–not just casually or academically, but for clues to possible susceptibilities that you, yourself, and your descendants may have.
Understanding Causes of Death
Over the past decade, I have spent much more time scrutinizing the causes of death of my direct ancestors and their family members. Part of that work has involved obtaining death certificates for absolutely all of my direct ancestors, their siblings, and all first cousins regardless of how far removed they are. Where death certificates were not available or not yet issued, I have extended my research to other resources.
First, for those census years in which there were mortality schedules used, I have actively sought out family members who died in the twelve months prior to census day on these schedules. Their cause of death and duration of the final illness are included there and that can provide good information.
Next, I have pursued either visiting or writing to cemetery offices and requesting information from their interment ledgers/books. The interment books typically contain the date of interment (not death), the name of the individual, the gender and age, sometimes the address, and always the cause of death and the duration of the final illness. This little-used historical and genealogical resource can be invaluable! (Iâ€™ve even seen entries for U.S. Civil War casualties that listed the date of death, the place at which the person died, and the exact cause of death. A bullet through the chest, perforating the lung; killed in fall from horse; dysentery; smallpox; and many other exact causes of death for soldiers are listed that may not appear in the individualâ€™s military service records.)
I also look to family Bibles, letters, journals, and diaries for information about a cause of death. My Grandmother Morgan was married and widowed before she met and married my grandfather. She married Jeter Earnest Murphy in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on 2 Feb 1898 and the entry in her personal Bible was one of joy. She even listed the names of all the members of her family who were in attendance at the wedding in her fatherâ€™s home. Tragically, however, when you flip the page to the â€œDeaths,â€ she has made another entry. â€œOn Saturday, July 9, 1898, Jeter Ernest Murphy died of that dread disease–typhoid fever.â€ While the entry of the cause of death in a family Bible might seem unusual, I have seen it on several occasions. In this case, a heartbroken young bride has been suddenly widowed and entered the cause of her grievous loss in her Bible, a book in which she sought solace and understanding.
What WAS the Cause of Death?
Medical technology and terminology has certainly changed over the decades and centuries. Most of us know that â€œconsumptionâ€ was an earlier name for â€œtuberculosis,â€ and that â€œpalsyâ€ referred to a paralysis or a loss of muscle control. However, older medical terms and alternative folk names for illnesses can confound you. Letâ€™s consider a few of these older terms that you will find in histories, death-related records, and other places in your genealogical research.
Do you know to what the condition called â€œdropsyâ€ referred? Dropsy is an old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the collection of excess water or fluid. Medical personnel today would refer to that condition as â€œedema.â€ Congestive heart failure is a most common form of edema. So is swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet after spending an extended period on your feet. â€œBrain feverâ€ referred to inflammation of brain and/or spinal tissue, and today would be better described by the terms â€œencephalitisâ€ or â€œmeningitis.â€ â€œLung feverâ€ is pneumonia, and â€œBrightâ€™s diseaseâ€ is a term used for kidney disease, now more often called â€œnephritisâ€ or â€œrenal disease.â€ And â€œYellow Jacketâ€ and â€œYellow Jackâ€ were other names for the highly-feared â€œyellow fever.â€ (It was also referred to as â€œthe American Plague.â€)
A visit to a used bookstore may yield a great find, such as an old medical dictionary from the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century. This makes a wonderful reference volume for your personal library. I have two of these: one cost me $15 and the other $25; I wouldnâ€™t let them go!
There are many places on the Web where you can find translations. Enter the archaic medical term in a search engine and then check several of the search results. Individuals have also created Web pages devoted to the old terminology. Some of these include:
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms
Consult your local public and academic libraries for reference books and online databases. These can provide even better and more extensive definitions.
As you are discovering the causes of death of your ancestors and their families, remember that the medical conditions they suffered often influenced how they lived their lives for some extended period. Consider the physical effects on their lifestyles and their abilities to work, socialize, and interact with others around them.
Be watchful for patterns of recurring diseases and illnesses in families. The light bulb in your head just may go on when you see repetitions through successive generations. In my family genealogy, I have seen repetition of kidney disease in four generations, coronary disease in five generations, and various cancers in three generations. The work at Intermountain Healthcare’s LDS Hospital is no surprise to me. I just wonder why it took so long for such an intensive, family genealogy-related study to be begun. Iâ€™m sure that the project will yield some impressive data.
In the meantime, keep delving into your familiesâ€™ causes of death.
Listen to The Genealogy Guys Podcast (www.genealogyguys.com) each week. George and Drew Smith will be speaking and recording podcasts from the Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree in Burbank, CA, on 8-10 June 2007. George will also be autographing his new book, The Official Guide to Ancestry.com
at the conference. Donâ€™t miss it!