16 August 2016

Exposing More of the Famdamily

Have you ever tracked family characteristics? Meaning significant physical traits such as hair colour, specific features of facial bone structure, height, mannerisms, and so on. It can also mean health considerations and illnesses. Hereditary patterns. Realistically, we can only do this for about three generations including our own. Sometimes we might have second- or third-hand health information about earlier ancestors.

In that vein, cause of death is of great interest for the family historian; it's a bonus when the certifying authority required the recording of "contributing factors," which can indicate longer-term illness or disease.
 Genograms, similar to genealogy charts, are not merely a sub-interest of family history or an exercise of mild curiosity. Medical consultants find them useful among other diagnostic tools. Haven't we all heard: "Do you have a history of heart disease in your family?" (... insert diabetes, glaucoma, cancer, etc.) That knowledge clearly could help with potential future symptoms. 

A more difficult characteristic to (attempt to) trace through a family is recurring mental illness.
Archaic euphemisms abound, historically speaking, for what was considered abnormal behaviour. Samples lunatic, insane, hysteric, idiot, imbecile, maniac, the list seems endless. (One general reference is Old Disease Names, Even today we have dozens of colloquial words to describe someone of odd demeanour or speech. Of course not everyone who was consigned to an old lunatic asylum was off-the-wall batshit crazy. Conditions such as post-partum depression and dementia and autism were not understood and went untreated. In darker times, a family member could be involuntarily admitted, virtually imprisoned, simply for being an unwanted nuisance.

It's not until the twentieth century that psychiatric diagnostics began to more precisely label different disorders. An imprecise science, some might say, as the "disorders" seem to multiply annually. But psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists and so on do find genograms useful. Family historians will likely find this type of chart more difficult to construct with only anecdotal data for earlier generations besides combing family papers and memorabilia, it calls for sensitive interviewing. In addition to any hereditary factor, "life events" during an ancestor's lifetime can also be contributing factors to illness and/or poor health.


Genogram symbols can vary depending on the purpose under study. Many examples of charts can be found online; is one place to explore.

What about our DNA? It can carry evidence of medical conditions in inherited chromosomes but that is not the purview of genealogical companies that test only for relationship factors. Genetic counselling clinics are available for potentially serious health risks and family planning concerns.

Aside from medical value, creating genograms of our family traits, both physical and mental, from our own research and knowledge, is a way to deepen family history insight.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman