- Family members: Gently ask relatives which illnesses run in the family and what Great-grandma died of. My mother recalls that one of her sisters developed diphtheria; their mother would hold a mirror under her nose to make sure she was still breathing.
- Diaries and letters: Health was a bigger deal to our ancestors than to us, and their diaries and letters are filled with litanies of the writers’ or family members’ symptoms and illnesses. The published writings of your ancestors’ contemporaries offer insights into medical conditions prevalent at that time: In A Midwife’s Tale: The Diary of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 transcribed by Laurel Ulrich (Vintage), you can follow Ballard’s daily interactions with patients. You’ve probably already examined any family papers you have, but be sure to ask relatives if they have any old letters and diaries.
- Death records: Most states began keeping records of deaths in the early 20th century, though some states, counties and towns started earlier. You’ll need an approximate date of death to request a death certificate; if you don’t know this information, ask relatives, look for an obituary or cemetery record, or search online death indexes for the state where the person died (run a Google search of the state name and “death index”). You also can search the Social Security Death Index, especially for folks who died after 1962search several sites’ versions of the index on Steve Morse’s One-Step site.
- Obituaries: Obituaries of the 18th and 19th centuries record the passing of men, women and children, but rarely mention the causes of their demise (unless it was connected with a news story, such as an accident). Often, only in the 20th century do you see a cause of death in print. Even if you don’t get a cause of death, though, you’ll have an approximate date and, possibly, the name of a cemetery or funeral home, so you can look for other records.
- Funeral records: Search the Web, check phone books, or ask at the local public library or historical society to find out if the funeral home mentioned on a death record is still in business. Contact the home to request a copy of an old record. Keep in mind that not all funeral homes retain old records, and these private businesses aren’t obligated to share their records with the public. Most funeral home records give you the certifying physician’s name and residence, as well as the cause of death and, of course, details about the funeral.
- Census records: You might not think of the census as a source of health information, but US enumerations do contain some clues. In the 1900 census, for example, look in the columns listing the number of children a woman gave birth to and the number still living. Study several pages, and you’ll get a staggering picture of the reality of infant mortality our ancestors lived with.
- Hospital records: At the Rhode Island Historical Society <www.rihs.org>, a brief record from a Revolutionary War military hospital in Providence lists the names of the sick, each person’s illness and the nurse who cared for him. Most of the hospitalized soldiers suffered from smallpox.
- Insurance records: The next time you fill out insurance paperwork, think about the type of information you’re supplyingit’s a great source of health history details. In 1865, insurers began collecting medical data; in 1889, Mutual Life Insurance Co. first included a medical questionnaire as part of its application. In Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places (Ancestry), Laura Szucs Pfeiffer says that some insurance companies keep files for years and then discard them, but others microfilm the applications or retain the originals permanently.
- Military records: Loads of medical details await you in military records. Soldiers’ service records might mention injuries received and absences due to hospitalization. Papers at NARA, writes Pfeiffer, might include “medical records for the periods 1821 to 1884 and 1894 to 1912, containing information relating to regular army personnel admitted to hospitals for treatment; abstracts of medical records for Civil War soldiers treated at medical facilities; and records of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery pertaining to sick or wounded naval personnel; and hospital records for residents of some of the National Homes for Volunteer Soldiers.” For more details on what records are available for those who served in World War I and earlier wars, see NARA’s website.
Applying your genealogy research skills to gathering health history information gives you a hard look into your ancestors’ liveseven the less pleasant aspects. It also could save your life and make you the longest-living member of your family.