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The Compleat Database: DNA and Health

When we look at a person, we should see more than a name, some dates and perhaps a faded photograph. As genealogists, we should also consider DNA, ethnicity and health issues.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Ethnicity and health issues are useful research tools. In the event someone failed to survive, their death will be recorded in the county where they died. Maybe an ancestor's death was recorded in Pinal County, Ariz., after they failed to recover from tuberculosis treatments at the Mountain View resort.

Race or Ethnicity

There are plenty of reasons to document ethnic information in your database. If someone is enumerated by a census taker as being Italian or Chinese, there should be immigration and naturalization papers on file and probably a passport. That means more sources for information about your subject.

While we have spent years attempting to avoid stereotypes, they sometimes serve us well in genealogy. Many immigrants gravitated toward ethnic neighborhoods for very practical reasons. In an ethnic neighborhood, they could be around people who spoke their native language and they could find restaurants and grocers that catered to their native cuisine.

When an ancestor seems to disappear in a large metropolitan area, hone-in on those ethnic neighborhoods. A Polish person who migrated to Pennsylvania around the turn of the century might have become a boarder in a Polish neighborhood of Berwick.

Physical Description

Genealogical databases are usually designed to include height, weight, and other physical descriptions. Most genealogists have a tendency to ignore this information and its genealogical significance.

Physical descriptions appear on military records and sometimes on ship's manifests. I once had a genealogy client who was struggling to find his wife's ancestors because their Eastern European name was difficult to pronounce and even more difficult to spell for anyone from another culture. We thought we had discovered a family member's draft registration form, but the name, again, was not spelled correctly. We felt very confident we had found the right person, but there was still a shadow of doubt. Then we noticed that according to the draft registration this man's right foot had been crushed in an accident. The client's face lit up as he recalled hearing that this relative was crippled. He was also relieved to learn it was not a congenital condition, but merely a very bad and unfortunate accident.

We followed that trail and eventually found other documentation proving we had the right family. The physical description was what got us started. We also found a description of the man's wife, indicating that she had red hair. Again, the client said the family always reminisced about her flaming red hair. In and of itself, red hair is not very reliable information. However, if she had been blond or brunette, we would have known we had the wrong person.


A hospitalization doesn't seem very genealogical, but it is. Knowing that someone had a surgical procedure that required an overnight stay means that their name probably appeared in the local newspaper under the listing of hospitalizations.

Most people have surgery at their local hospital. If you can verify that someone was in a hospital in Peoria, Illinois, on a given date when you believe that they also resided in Peoria, you can use that as a secondary source. You'll certainly want to back it up with primary sources but it is still useful information.

There are many different types of hospitals. A patient at Mayo Clinic quite likely was not a local resident of Rochester, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Florida, or Scottsdale/Phoenix, Arizona, where the clinics are located. But it often has made patients' local papers when they were ill enough to go to Mayo Clinic.

There are two instances where hospitalizations make the census. A residential hospital is recorded as the primary place of residence for anyone who was committed to any kind of asylum, whether it be an insane asylum or a tuberculosis asylum. Homeless citizens who were hospitalized during a census were recorded as living at the hospital.

Rumors about individuals who have been institutionalized often make the rounds among family, even if it is in whispers. We have become more open-minded and less judgmental or embarrassed about family who were institutionalized. Great-Great grandmother may have been institutionalized merely because she was going through menopause. On the other hand, some research indicates that depression may be hereditary. It is a good thing to know if it becomes necessary to address a behavioral issue. It could be a very specific type of depression, making it much easier to begin diagnosis.


Everyone has some kind of illness at some point in time. The goal is not to record every sniffle someone had. However, short-term and long-term illnesses are useful and should be recorded. Again, it is helpful to know if there is a possible hereditary aspect that descendants could benefit from knowing about.

But, illness also appears in a census enumeration. Some censuses report the number of months an individual did not work during the enumeration year. Some enumerations note whether a person was disabled. Being aware of the person's illnesses can account for such things. Also, people have often sought health at resorts and spas and retreats. Perhaps Great-Grandpa was "taking the cure," as it was called, and was out of town during the census. In fact, the entire family may have gone along to a sanitarium, which was really just a health resort and not a traditional medical facility. They could have been summering at Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan.


Lingering illnesses leave a disability paper trail. Again, the census returns report disabilities and may even describe the malady in some detail. By process of elimination, an ancestor who was permanently blind in the 1880 census, could not have been a jeweler in 1900.


If we are concerned about genetics, it is useful to note exposure to chemicals that can be hereditary. While your genealogical database is not designed to be a medical history, it can help.

Daughters can inherit health consequences from fertility hormones taken by their mother. Can those consequences be passed on to further generations? It would be good to know if the hormones exist within the family tree. Especially during the past half century, we have been knowingly exposed to chemicals that didn't even exist prior to that. We don't know how many generations may be affected by Agent Orange used in Viet Nam or radiation used by diagnostic medicine. It would be time-consuming to record every x-ray we experience during our lifetime. It would be even more difficult to track down every time grandpa had his teeth x-rayed. But, in significant instances, it could be priceless information for future generations to have if they experience catastrophic health issues that could be related to chemical exposures. Record instances of things like Uncle Marvin being accidently exposed to radioactive waste.

Health information is more than busywork. It could save someone's life.

Watch for the following upcoming articles in the Compleat Database Series

  1. Citizenship
  2. Cultural affinities
  3. Education
  4. Life events
  5. Death data
  6. Property ownership
  7. Legal events
  8. Marital status
  9. Politics

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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