As with all genealogy and family history the best place to start is with living relatives who may recollect certain health issues suffered by deceased family members; however, they may not always be forthcoming with the details. For example in my own family the fact that undiagnosed diabetes was principally the cause of my paternal grandmother's death was kept a secret for many years. Some family members viewed the fact of diabetes as somehow shameful. The same goes for cancer. Many will not even utter the 'C' word, as some call it, preferring to refer to it as 'his illness' or 'her battle'. It may be difficult for us to understand such feelings of shame, but whether or not we understand it, it does exist.
Family documents offer a good starting point. Letters, memoirs, even family bibles, and other documents of this nature may include details of illnesses and causes of death. Sometimes a off hand remark in a letter or document may lead you to uncover a chronic illness or general pattern of ill health. Of course, it is important to respect the privacy of family members as you conduct this research, particularly if you plan to post it on a blog. I prefer to post about those long dead, as opposed to the recently departed.
Sources for gathering information about the medical history of your ancestors
Always an interesting source and some may bear the cause of death. You might see Malaria as the cause of death listed on the stones of loved ones who died in so called 'exotic' or 'overseas' locales. If the death was the result of an accident, a gravestone, such as the one pictured below, may give the entire history of the matter in the ending of a life. In this case Henry Coff, a railway fireman, "lost his life near Glencairn Station by the breaking of the leading wheel of the engine truck".
2. Death certificates, death registrations, and parish burial registers:
Of course, these include a statement of the cause of death; however, some may mention diseases or ailments with which we may not be familiar today, such as 'General Debility', or may state different names for similar causes of death. For example typhoid fever may appear as enteric fever, gastric fever, abdominal typhus, infantile remittent fever, slow fever, nervous fever, or pythogenic fever. It is helpful to consult a medical dictionary from the period and region in question in order to best understand what is stated on the death certificate. Take a look at Antiquus Morbus, an excellent site which lists and defines thousands of archaic terms for diseases and causes of death.
|The Liverpool death certificate of little Joseph Fitzpatrick 1901, brother of my maternal grandmother.|
Cause of death given is 'General Debility'.
|1864 death registration for Nicholas Fitzpatrick, twin brother of my maternal great-grandfather Thomas.|
Cause of death is 'Cynanche Trachealis', which is better known to us today as 'the croup'.
3. Workhouse records:
The National Archives of Ireland is a repository for some extant workhouse records including the North and South Dublin Union workhouses. For any other extant workhouse records check the libraries and archives of the county in which your ancestor lived (see Irish Archives Resource). While your ancestor may not have been an inmate of the workhouse proper, if he/she was poor, then he/she may have received medical treatment in the workhouse infirmary, and that treatment may have been noted in the workhouse register. These registers are not currently available online, and so must be consulted in person.
|Registration of death for Francis Ball who died in the South Dublin Union Workhouse Infirmary.|
Some of these may include not only details relating to the burial site, but also to the cause of death. This record available through Glasnevin Trust in Dublin is a good example of such a record. Use the search page on the Glasnevin Trust website to find information for those interred in The Prospect Cemetery at Glasnevin, Goldenbridge Cemetery, as well as Dardistown, Newlands Cross, and Palmerstown cemeteries. There is a fee for viewing records.
|Cause of death given is 'Phthisis', a more benign name for Tuberculosis.|
While they may not specifically mention the cause of death, clues can be gleaned from statements such as "after a long illness". Information is sometimes given about charities which will accept donations in memory of the loved one. For example if a cancer society is mentioned, it may mean the loved one suffered from cancer. Also, there may be a mention of a hospice which might hold records. (Hospices in Ireland have been in operation since the mid 19th century). Although such information offered in an obituary is by no means proof of a particular illness, it does offer a starting point. The Irish Newspaper Archives is a good resource for finding obituaries for persons who died on the island of Ireland.
6. Pension documents:
If a member of your family applied for a survivor's pension, the cause of death of the loved one may be listed.
7. Old Age Benefit Applications:
These may include information about the cause of death of deceased spouses.
8. Military records:
In addition to the familiar 'killed in action', a full military record will likely list all medical care delivered to the service member while he or she was on active duty. Some extant military records for Irish citizens who fought in World War 1 can be accessed through Ancestry and also through the National Archives UK site.
When I review the sum total of my own family medical history, it can be a bit daunting. Between the eye disease, cardiac troubles, diabetes, alcoholism, dementia and depression, I feel a bit unnerved; however, I view it all as encouragement to take the best possible care of myself so that I live a long and healthy life. Whether or not you use the medical history of your family for your own benefit, I believe you will find conducting this research to be a very interesting and challenging exercise.
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