Health Genealogy

FingerFamilyWe often look at a newborn baby and marvel at how he has his grandmother’s eyes or her father’s chin, but we don’t typically wonder what else may have been inherited from past generations. By Francie Smith.

Past Clues

A number of medical conditions are known to pass down through families, and it is said that over 40% of the population is at increased genetic risk of developing a common disease such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease. Understanding your risk of developing one of these diseases is an important reason to research your family history as, with prevention and screening, the risk of contracting some conditions might be greatly reduced.

Changes you may need to make to your lifestyle to lessen your risk are often simple, and a far better option than contracting a full-blown condition which needs medication or aggressive treatment to control. Your GP, at your initial visit, will have asked you what medical conditions your family has now, or had in past generations. How sure are you about the accuracy of the information you provided?

Make a Start

This is where medical genealogy can help. Genealogy is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. To research medical genealogy, the same basic concepts are used. Start with what you know, and document this information. Note your medical and health facts and those of your brothers and sisters, then go back a generation to your parents, then to your grandparents, then back further still!

Family Histories

To help you keep everything in order there are a number of websites that offer free downloads of pedigree charts for genealogists. The easiest way to find charts is to use the Google Internet search engine (ask others or your local library to help you with your genealogy searches if you don’t have access to the Internet). In the Google search box enter ‘pedigree charts’, then choose the option which is right for you.

You can either download a programme to your computer or print off a form. Failing this, just write down the information in a manner that you and your doctor can understand. When building a medical genealogy picture you will need information about many others, including relations who are still alive. Be mindful of the privacy of your family members; some may be reluctant to offer information. Don’t push the issue if they are not forthcoming. There was a time when some medical conditions were deemed to be embarrassing and therefore not spoken about, so be prepared for some resistance.

Historical Records

To verify the data you are given, it will be necessary to look death certificates. If you are unable to find these within family records, they can be obtained by other means. For most New Zealanders, their immediate family members would have died in New Zealand, and the Department of Internal Affairs allows online access to birth, death, and marriage records. Its site allows you to search by name for family members. Records can be then ordered as a printout or a certificate. Printouts are less expensive at $20 each and have more information. Ordering can be done online with payment by credit card. These death records are restricted to those that occurred at least 50 years ago, or if the deceased’s date of birth was at least 80 years ago. English and Welsh death certificates can also be searched at freebmd. Using the references provided, certificates can then be ordered from the General Registry Office.

Health Clues

Archaic medical terms is a fascinating subject in itself. If you are interested in further reading, explore this topic by searching Google.

As an example of the usefulness of medical genealogy, I know, after researching my own family history, that I have inherited diabetes from my father, and that both my mother and maternal grandmother died of bronchial asthma related illnesses. Unfortunately, I came about this information a little too late to prevent the onset of diabetes, but early enough to be able to manage the disease. If you cannot obtain your family medical history due to adoption, or you learn all you need to know through conventional means, all is not lost: ensure you have regular checkups with your doctor. Prevention is better than a cure!

Appealing Hobby

Whilst gathering your medical genealogy information, you may find that you develop an interest in furthering your family tree and studying family history. Be warned, this is an addictive hobby that can keep your wallet empty, but it is invaluable for keeping your mind alert – a health benefit in itself!

Filling in Gaps

The Family Bible

Often passed down for generations, Bibles may offer important clues about ancestors’ health and causes of death. They may also have Memoriam cards, clippings and other treasures tucked into the pages, with snippets of new information to add to your health genealogy research.


Overall wellbeing may be obvious in old movies and photos, providing visual health evidence from past generations.

Newspaper Clippings

These yellowed bits of paper are fascinating sources of information about the lives of ancestors, including facts about their health and wellbeing (news stories, profiles, family notices, even advertisements).

Storytelling and Reminiscence

Memories can be unreliable, but stories and family lore provide rich glimpses into how your ancestors lived (and died). Capture this information from current relatives, who may have stories, photos, letters, diaries, and other ‘one of a kind’ heirlooms that will help you build a picture of health traits and trends across generations.

The Internet

Downloading birth, death, and marriage certificates and Census information will allow you to compile a fairly comprehensive family tree without stepping out of the house! Google searches using family names or key events will also yield all sorts of helpful leads. Be warned: searching is addictive!

Genealogy Forums

Genealogy is now a very popular hobby. There may be enthusiasts in your community who can offer ideas and encouragement.

Advice and Guidance

If you become interested in genealogy, you may wish to join the NZ Society of Genealogists. Phone 09 570 4248 or visit

What To Look For

Death certificates or printouts have a wealth of information, and are traditionally used by genealogists to learn about past generations in their family tree. These documents contain the deceased’s parents’ names, where the deceased was born and, in the historical records, if they were born overseas, and how long they lived in New Zealand.

The causes of death can make very interesting reading, as the medical terms used years ago can differ greatly from those used today. Interesting past causes of death are:

  •  Consumption
  • Tuberculosis
  • Apoplexy
  • Paralysis due to a stroke
  • Bright’s Disease
  • Meningitis or Typhus
  • Atrophy
  • Wasting
  • Dropsy of the Brain
  • Encephalitis
  • Fatty Liver
  • Cirrhosis of the Liver
  • Lockjaw
  • Tetanus
  • Phthisis (another name for Tuberculosis)

Family Jigsaws

Items to record when developing your family’s health genealogy may include:

  • Birth and death dates, if deceased, along with the cause of death.
  • Ethnicity, as some genetic diseases are prevalent in particular ethnic groups.
  • Major illnesses.
  • Chronic health problems.
  • Birth defects.
  • Note when medical conditions occurred; for known family members, record their general overall health including if they smoked, were overweight, and their exercise habits.
  • The more information you can gather, the better informed you will be about your medical heritage!

© Family Care NZ

Photo:, AndreiShumskiy