Before DNA? Death Certificates 6

Long before there was this thing called DNA, there were death certificates to track family diseases and the conditions that led to the death of a family member.

Long ago, I decided to do my family's “medical genealogy”.  Having a background in geriatric nursing, I was certainly aware of the diseases of the aged and contributing causes; but I was especially interested in what caused the demise of my own ancestors.

I was very surprised to find that what was told to me about the deaths of my ancestors wasn't always true...  One very troubling find was the fact that my paternal grandmother was always said to have Alzheimer’s disease (and the fear that it may run in the family) – when in fact, she had dementia brought on by alcoholism.  On further inspection, her father died of cirrhosis of the liver... an entirely different reason for concern was then emerging.  So one concern was traded for another; but, a concern that was a warning – rather than something that couldn't be helped (like Alzheimer’s).  So, in sounding the alarm and shedding light on the subject within the family, we educated ourselves about the dangers of alcohol as it pertains to us and were so advised.

My mother's family were all found to have respiratory problems.  “Weak Lungs”, were often discussed...  The fact that most of them smoked was never brought up, however, but there is an overwhelming number of deaths from pneumonia, emphysema and COPD.

My father's family all seemed to have vascular problems.  There were heart attacks, strokes and surprisingly, exploding aorta!  Yikes!  Probably from all that rich French food they ate (I know this, because I am in receipt of several of their recipes!)  *Note to self – stop eating Memere's recipes...

Another thing I found?  In examining pictures, I noticed that all of my father's male relations all had bald patches on the crowns of their heads...  “So”, you say?  Well, balding on the crown of the head is said to be tied to coronary artery disease – another confirmation for all those vascular problems.

DNA testing can be very expensive and confusing.  Death certificates are the sort of things that we often trade with other researchers, therefore curtailing our costs.  Careful examination of the these certificates can often reveal more than the expected; such as family relationships, addresses, age or birth dates, spouses, hopefully parents! 🙂 and funeral home/burial details – they can reveal a pattern of genetic problems that we can look out for in ourselves and our loved ones, therefore educating ourselves against predisposition to these diseases.

There is a bright spot with regard to newbies who haven't yet invested in death certificates or found a partner in research with which to share these records.  23 and Me has been seen recently via television commercials that claim to track these health problems/diseases comprehensively.  This may be another solution for those who possess inconclusive or non-existent death certificates.  My daughter recently ordered her kit – not wanting to rely on her mothers' “old fashioned” methods.  It will be interesting to see the results of this test to see if it meshes with my conclusions.  I am confident in my research results – now I will wait to see what their test reveals!  I am by no means suggesting (or endorsing) this test for you.  You may look on the web page and decide for yourself.

Any of the above solutions might be a good fit for you; after all, everyone is different in the pursuit of their heritage.  To each generation, his own!

**  Excellent update time!!!!  My daughters test came back and TOTALLY meshed with what I had found!  Now, keep in mind that with 23 and Me, the medical DNA portion – as I understand it – is from both parents; so half of the medical DNA is from me and half from her father, but the ancestral DNA is only from me – so be aware of that.  That being said, I have to tell you that her father, her paternal grandmother and that grandmothers parents all died within the last 20 years (so I know positively what they died from).  Not only were the medical concerns from my family in the results, but every one of her fathers family's causes of death were addressed in the report as risk factors as well! So there you have it... Whoo Hoo!

I'd love to hear if any of you have pursued your medical genealogy and how you did it...

About Leslie (Gignac) Drewitz

Leslie (Gignac) Drewitz (PLCGS) is a graduate of the National Institute of Genealogical Studies, with a Professional Learning Certificate in Genealogical Studies - Librarianship and currently works for a suburban Chicago public library where she has overseen the Local History collection for the past 11 years; as well as their Genealogy Club, where she teaches and lectures. Lately, she has been named a curator at the Bloomingdale Park District Museum in Bloomingdale, IL, as well. She also does private contract genealogy. Leslie lives with her husband Michael; her four children, Ellissa, Trevor, Jon and Katie; and their wonder dogs, Harley, Birdie and Mr.B. You can contact Leslie by email, or on LinkedIn

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6 thoughts on “Before DNA? Death Certificates

  • Drew Smith

    If your daughter is the one who took the DNA test, then the ancestral DNA is from both sides of her family (about 50% from each side).

  • Leslie

    Hi Drew!

    As I understand it, the MEDICAL DNA is from both parents – but the ANCESTRAL DNA is just from my line (which it is, there is nothing from her father’s side). In order to get her fathers’ ANCESTRAL DNA results, she had to submit a test done by my son. Apparently, that’s the way it works… But, because we were only interested in her medical DNA – we really didn’t have a lot of interest in the other aspects of the test because we have other family members who have done DNA testing before and all of the results pretty much mesh. If anyone from 23andme would like to comment on this – please do! I’d hate to think we misread the results, but I’m pretty sure that’s what they stated…

    Thanks for commenting!

  • Drew Smith


    I think the confusion here is about the term “ancestral DNA”. While it’s true that the Y-chromosome is passed down only from father to son (which is why a son would need to take a Y-DNA test), the bulk of one’s DNA (which is known as “autosomal DNA”) comes from both sides of the family (about 50% from the father’s side, and 50% from the mother’s side).

    The big 3 testing companies (23 and Me, Family Tree DNA, and offer autosomal tests, which anyone can test, to learn about their autosomal DNA. By taking this kind of test, you may not only discover cousins on both sides of your family tree (both the father’s side and the mother’s side), but you may also get some idea of the ethnic breakdown of one’s ancestry (what percentage European, what percentage Asian, and so forth).

  • Leslie

    Thanks for the education, Drew. That’s so weird, because her father’s ethnicity really isn’t showing. There are some overlaps (we both have English, Irish and Scottish) – but nothing else. Hmmmmm.

  • Drew Smith

    Leslie, this can happen because the testing companies can only provide a kind of estimate when they report the ethnic background. In order to do good estimates, they depend on DNA taken from a large number of different world populations, and sometimes, they don’t have a set of tests from a population of interest. This means that the reported ethnic breakdown may not show that ethnicity.