It is extremely useful to know of any illnesses or diseases that our ancestors lived with, which contributed to, or caused their deaths. Conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer can appear in your family history, alongside other illnesses.
It is believed that we inherit a random selection of DNA from up to 6 generations that came before us. This is called “Epigenetics”. Knowing the family medical history can help you (and your descendants) make informed decisions about your lifestyles and the potentials for inheriting these diseases or for preventing them.
This US article Why is it important to know my family medical history explains more.
There are lots of clues which you can pick up when researching people and I’ve put together my suggestions of places you can check for yourself.
Where to find out about the medical history of your ancestors
- Death certificates
- Newspaper articles
- Family letters
- Family bibles
- Medical journals
- Ask living people what they knew of their relations/ancestors
Some certificates will state the cause of death. Bear in mind that the words used to describe an illness or disease may not be commonly used now, e.g. apoplexy means stroke. There are several resources below which can help you with identifying what the words meant.
NB Information on a death certificate may not be the only cause of death. e.g. a heart attack as a result of cancer.
Another resource you may not be aware of is the Births, Marriages and Deaths at Sea Register. I recently found a client’s ancestor on there after he died from an asthma attack on board ship in 1877.
These can be very useful as they sometimes state if a person has been ill for a period of time or whether the death was unexpected. My 3 x great grandfather Edward William Cox died unexpectedly and this article gives lots of background information.
George Duffill, my recently discovered 2 x step great grandfather suffered from goitre (a swelling on the thyroid gland in the neck) and went to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London for an operation. Unfortunately he died from complications following the anaesthetic in 1909. This is all mentioned in a couple of newspaper articles. It also says he had had several operations for this over several years. This could indicate an inheritable thyroid condition.
Family letters sometimes mention illnesses. My 3 x great grandfather John Fonblanque wrote 3 letters to his sister-in-law Rose. In one of them he mentioned a woman being gravely ill (I can’t read her name) It could be an Emma as he mentioned her in previous letters (and I’ve no idea who this is as his wife Caroline outlived him).
Wills normally start with being “sound of mind and body” sometimes you may see mention of “being sound of mind but weak or feeble in body”. This can be a clue to an illness or cause of death. Probate records and estate disbursements can also mention payments to doctors or hospitals. Family trusts may also mention something.
It’s worth checking for any bibles or religious historical family books to see if there are any mentions of illnesses or diseases.
Did your ancestor have a ‘new’ or ‘experimental’ procedure for something? This may have been written up in The Lancet or another scientific journal. The Hathi Trust has access to a lot of these journals.
Ask living people what they knew of their relations/ancestors
A few years ago I sat down with my great aunt and asked her about the family. She told me her father died after a bowel operation in 1929. Apparently this cost £300 (a great deal of money in those days!) and I believe he had bowel cancer. He moved to the Sussex countryside for ‘fresh air’ from Woking in Surrey a year or two before this.
She also mentioned that her grandmother had been crippled with arthritis and needed one of her daughters in law to look after her in later life.
Arthritis is one of a family of auto-immune diseases and several living members of my family (across 3 generations) have rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and other auto-immune diseases.
If you would like to record your own family medical history I have created a downloadable template here. It has separate pages for Father’s ancestors – please copy these for your Mother’s ancestors. Feel free to customise this to help you. I’ve included columns for age and major illnesses and notes. I’ve also added an occupation column as this may be relevant for illnesses/diseases.
Living family medical histories
I’ve also created a template for recording the history of someone who is still living (so you can ask them questions about their medical history). It can be downloaded here.
I suggest you include information on the following diseases:
- Heart disease
- Mental illness
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- Birth defects
- Learning disabilities
- Vision or hearing loss
- Arthritis/auto-immune diseases
You can add any information about their ancestors to the family medical history template mentioned above.
There’s more guidance on tracing your family medical history in this article. https://www.thoughtco.com/tracing-your-family-medical-history-1422000.
If you come across other resources please add them to the comments below.