The most annoying thing about going to a new doctor is having to write down your medical history. Granted, it’s important for the doctor, but I always have to budget an hour extra on the first day to a new doctor’s office. One interesting thing that has started to pop up on these forms is questions about the medical history of your family. Most of the time this has to do with things such as heart disease and cancer, but for a small percentage of the population, medical histories can help genealogists find ancestors in unexpected places.
Some conditions, like diabetes, affect all ethnic groups and cultures, but others, such as Gilbert’s disease or hemophilia, can help you locate places where your family lived and solve mysteries. Whether the health issues are just annoying or severe, they can answer genealogical questions. One of my direct ancestors owned a bit of land and sufficient livestock to support his little family, and had his brothers and sisters nearby- altogether a comfortable life, not one he’d want to leave. But all of a sudden between censuses, the parents and children disappear from the homestead and reappear in New Mexico! We were shocked, we were confused; that couldn’t be our family. They had no reason to leave their happy home to go live in the desert of all places.
The answer to this mystery came from my own medical history. Every winter, in preparation of spring, my family would start stocking up on the tissues and Benadryl. Whenever there was an ozone action day I’d have to wear a face mask and spend recess with the librarian instead of on the swings. For some of you this sounds very familiar. I suffer from severe allergies. From pollen to smog, my nasal cavities just can’t deal with it. If my mother and I didn’t have Benadryl we would have either died, or wished we had. The funny thing is, in the 1800s, no one had Benadryl. When we reminisced about those weeks spent with what felt like a brick behind our noses, the picture suddenly became clear. There is very little pollen in the desert and our ancestor just got tired of having sinus headaches six months out of the year.
Connecting through medical woes is one way that we can connect with our ancestors. We are all affected by the culture and age in which we live, but connecting to family in this unique way can help us relate better. Understanding their “aches and pains” may help us understand our own.
Coming next week: part two of this piece, where we’ll discuss the ways that medical knowledge can be used in research.