Sunday, July 10, 2011

Scanning Our Roots for Health Reasons

This past Friday marked over two decades since my first husband passed away. Yes, he died young—something we never seem to expect in life—but in his case, there was a foreseeable health issue.

My husband was born with a genetic disorder known as Marfan’s Syndrome. Like many others with the disorder, he was extremely tall, had long fingers (which contributed to his ability to play those demanding Rachmaninoff piano pieces), and possessed the typical Marfan’s malformation of the hard palate (which augmented the resonance in his sterling baritone voice).

Because Marfan’s is a genetic disorder, we were able to pinpoint which relative was the carrier of the defective gene: it turned out to be from my husband’s paternal grandmother’s Woodworth line. Indeed, one of his great-uncles had several sons with the same health condition. A telltale sign at family gatherings was when their petite mother stood next to her sons for family photos: she stood at just over belt-buckle height to her gargantuan sons.

I know several people whose health history is impacted by their ancestry. Some know exactly who the carrier is—and if possible, have taken precautions to avoid passing along the offending gene. In some cases, such as that of my friend whose son is a hemophiliac, their family’s originator of the illness is not yet apparent. And in a cousin’s case—she was diagnosed with a rare condition that may be genetically based—she is still searching her roots for the possible origins.

Searching for the family members who carried a genetic syndrome—or even the propensity to illnesses such as cancer or heart disease—is more easily accommodated with today’s internet-driven resources. Of course, the source document that most conclusively confirms health issues is our forebears’ death certificates. That search used to be a tedious process of sending for the documents from each responsible government jurisdiction—and those dollars for requested copies certainly added up.

I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled upon a free source of death certificates, and could see for myself the document’s every detail. There, along with the dates, mother’s maiden name (if I was lucky) and undertaker’s name and address, was the primary cause of death along with contributing factors. I could take note of how many of my ancestors (at least through the late 1800s and 1900s) died of cancer or high blood pressure, for instance, and observe any trends.

Depending on the state in which I was researching, the site that helped me the most was a beta site for There, along with the text synopsis of the search results was a clickable icon enabling me to view the image of the actual death certificate. No more reliance on transcribers’ desperate attempts to decipher doctors’ trademark illegible handwriting; I could do so for myself.

Hopefully, your family’s health is fine or at least currently uneventful, but if you do need to delve into the health history of your ancestors, your genealogy research skills coupled with some great free online resources should fill the bill.

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