A couple weeks ago, I mentioned my Grandpa Pyburn in the article about the U.S. Passport Collection.Â As I followed up on researching that neglected family line, I found a passenger arrival record for him as he returned from Trinidad, which lies off the coast of Venezuela. When I shared it with my mom, she remarked that the record was from the time he spent working in South America–a trip on which he contracted malaria. I hadnâ€™t heard this fact. She told me a story then that my Aunt Madelon had told her about visit him at his fatherâ€™s house when he was ill; she could hear the bed rattle upstairs with the violent tremors that are symptomatic of the disease.
We donâ€™t often think of this type of disease when it comes to our family history. When we hear about disease in the context of family history, itâ€™s often in relation to our own health and of conditions that are hereditary. This is of course important and a great reason to investigate your family health history. In fact, it is so important that the Surgeon General here in the U.S. has a â€œFamily History Initiativeâ€ online with tools to help you record a family health history that can be shared with your physician.
But although our family health history is perhaps the best reason to look into the health of our ancestors, it is not the only reason. Just as our own health impacts our lives and many of the decisions we make, the same held true for our ancestors.
When family historians run across records that show family members dying in rapid succession, one of the first things to consider is a disease or an epidemic of some kind. When youâ€™re dealing with contagious diseases, itâ€™s not uncommon to see families decimated. Several members of my Kelly family died of tuberculosis (consumption), including my third great-grandmother at the age of twenty-six. This isnâ€™t surprising given the contagious nature of TB. Since families often worked, traveled, and lived in close quarters with one another, situations like this are not uncommon.
I picked up a book called â€œForeign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930,â€ at the FGS Conference back in August. When I cleaned my office last week it surfaced and landed in my â€œbooks-to-readâ€ basket. The third chapter is titled, â€œIn Sickness and in Health.â€ In it I found an interesting statistic in relation to my Kellys. The book cites the fact that Irish-born residents had a higher than normal death rate from tuberculosis (340 per 100,000) than native-born individuals (113 per 100,000).
Furthermore, the chapter mentions that with some diseases, there was a sentiment among immigrants that catching certain diseases was inevitable and in some cases, when one child got sick, other children were deliberately exposed in the hope that they would get a mild case and thus gain immunity to the disease.
When you learn of a disease that affected your family history, take a little time to learn more about it. What was the incubation period? How long did it last and what were the symptoms? Think about it in the context of how it would have impacted the entire family.
You may see the implications of illness in other records as well. The 1880 U.S. Federal Census asked, “Is the person (on the day of the enumerator’s visit) sick, or temporarily disabled, so as to be unable to attend to ordinary business or duties? If so, what is the sickness or disability?” It also asked how many months of the year a person was out of work during the census year. A sick bread-winner would have meant loss of income, perhaps forcing other family members and even children into the workforce.
Census mortality schedules are another record source that gives cause of death. Itâ€™s interesting to go through and see what people in your ancestorâ€™s neighborhood were dying from. Ancestry has some of these records available online.
Unfortunately another point brought up in â€œForeign and Femaleâ€ was that families often didnâ€™t want it known when there was illness in the house. There was a common fear of hospitals and quarantine, so itâ€™s possible that there was illness in the home, even if that column happens to be blank in the census records.
Because some immigrants distrusted hospitals, and even doctors to some extent, many turned to folk healers and superstition in times of illness. The methods employed were often ineffective. In the UCLA Online Archive of Folk MedicineÂ one entry from Slovakia says it was believed that hanging an onion above the door would keep cholera out. Since we now know that cholera is a food- or water-borne illness, the hanging onionâ€™s effect would have been more of a decorative or odoriferous nature.
Some home remedies were actually poisonous. Another entry cites the ingestion of mercury to treat syphilis.
Patent medicines were also a problem. Ads in newspapers touted remedies to cure long lists of ailments–from the common cold to liver ailments to rheumatism. Many of these so-called â€œcuresâ€ were loaded with alcohol and narcotics. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters for example was 44.3 percent alcohol–or 88-proof!Â An ad in an 1863 issue of Harperâ€™s Weekly touts Hostetterâ€™s and â€œits marvelous effect upon the diseased liver.â€ Iâ€™m guessing the effects were less than â€œmarvelous.â€
When an epidemic struck, youâ€™ll often find residents fleeing the area until the pestilence passed. A New York Times article from 1907 describes how hundreds of people were fleeing an epidemic of unknown origins in Ridgway, Pennsylvania.
Here are some tips for researching the ailments you uncover in your family history:
- Learn the terminology. Websites like Archaic Medical Terms can be helpful in determining the meaning of old disease names.Â
- Be aware of epidemics that struck in areas in which your ancestors lived. You can find timelines like this one online.Â
- Once youâ€™ve identified an epidemic that may have affected your family, check historical newspapers and read any local coverage.
- Learn more about the symptoms and duration of an illness. Modern health sites abound on the Web. Search for the name of the ailment and youâ€™ll have a better understanding of what an ailing ancestor went through.
- Check out Cyndiâ€™s List for more websites with medical information.Â
- Seek out local histories. In A History of the City of Brooklyn, by Henry R. Stiles, I found the following reference to a cholera epidemic:Â
â€œThe principal event of this year was the visitation of that dreadful scourge of the human race, the epidemic cholera. It appeared in Brooklyn on the 29th of May, 1849, from which time it prevailed here until the 22d of September. During this period there were 642 deaths, *being in a ratio to the population (100,000), of one in every 155 persons* Of these deaths 495 were adults, and 147 children; the larger relative mortality among the latter (being one to every three of the former), forming a distinctive characteristic of the epidemic in this city.â€
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.