r Some of the most interesting and potentially helpful pieces of information you will find in researching ancestors is their cause of death and what diseases or conditions they suffered from. This medical information can help guide future generations to make more informed health decisions. Finding this information in the last couple centuries isn’t very difficult. Medical information appears in death records, birth records, newspapers, censuses, journals and personal letters.
Most death records since the early 1900’s (and some jurisdictions kept records back to the 1700’s) mention a cause of death. Many mention associated diseases. For example, when someone died of heart trouble it may also be mentioned that they had diabetes, which is strongly familial. Some may give general terms like “inanition” (exhaustion or starvation) or “failure to thrive” but also may mention that they have macrocephaly or an enlarged head, which may have genetic or other disease-related causes. Certain cancers can also be familial. The burial records of churches may mention that there is an epidemic causing an increase in the number of burials. Birth records frequently record birth defects, especially if that defect contributes to the baby’s demise.
Newspapers are a great source of information. Obituaries may mention the cause of death or the illness they suffered from. Asking for donations to the Cancer or MS Societies or other organizations are also hints to the cause of death. Many small-town papers list when people are admitted to the hospital and for what and the gossip columns are full of best wishes for ill people.
The censuses from 1870 onward record if persons were blind, deaf, dumb, idiotic, insane or had other disabilities. In 1880 a special enumeration was made of “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes” and is accessed at Ancestry.com. If you have deaf members of your family you can check the Special Census of Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895 also at Ancestry.com.
Personal journals and family letters also describe family diseases and causes of death. Some will describe the symptoms and others may name the disease or disorder. In their descriptions, they may use old fashioned medical terms such as “fits” or “falling sickness” for epilepsy.
Charting the known diseases and causes of death for your relatives can be quite helpful in either diagnosing current problems or helping to prevent future problems. Some websites that are informative are: https://www.genopro.com/articles/what-is-a-genogram.aspx; https://www.olivetreegenealogy.com/misc/disease.shtml; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK115557/; https://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-living/understanding-your-family-history-of-disease.aspx; https://vitalrecord.tamhsc.edu/common-diseases-affected-family-history/.