The importance of family medical records

Nancy Battick , Special to The County
9 years ago

Everyone, genealogist or not, needs to create a family medical history.  When you visit your GP or a specialist today you will most likely be asked for the medical history of your family.  Doctors do this because they know that our genetic heritage can affect our health and our descendants’.

For example, a friend’s mother died in the 1950s of breast cancer.  She had three sons and no daughters.  Each son fathered daughters.  One son had genetic testing done when his daughter developed breast cancer like her grandmother.  The test revealed he was a carrier of the breast cancer gene.  The other sons were then tested and they also had inherited the gene and passed it on to their own children — males can also develop breast cancer, by the way.  The daughters have opted for preventative surgery rather than risk cancer.  Angelina Jolie made headlines when she recently did the same thing.

You don’t need special forms to create a medical history.  You can search online for “family medical history forms” and countless options will pop up that you can download for free.  However, you can just as easily create your own by using a spreadsheet, word processing, or just a simple lined pad of paper.  The format doesn’t matter; it’s the information that’s important.

Start with your paternal (father’s) line:  father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and any uncles.  Then do your father’s maternal (mother’s) line:  mother, grandmother, etc.  Repeat this for your mother’s paternal and maternal lines.

Check death certificates for causes of death.  Many certificates will also list secondary illnesses as well and note those.  Talk to family members but keep in mind that family folklore can often be wrong.  Family members told me my great-grandmother died of “acute indigestion.”  Of course it was a massive heart attack.

But sometimes folklore can point you in the right direction so talking with older relatives may point out an issue no one thought important.   My mother related a family story to me about my great-grandfather’s trembling hands and that he had “shaking palsy”.

Over time and with medical advances medical terminology evolves.  To try to identify what an older term, such as shaking palsy, means go to one of the best sites online, Rudy’s List (  There I found my great-grandfather’s “shaking palsy” is now called Parkinson ’s disease.

If you find a term that isn’t yet on Rudy’s list let the webmaster know about it.  The site is constantly updating their listings.

Once you have a medical history share it with your doctor and family.  Be warned that some relatives feel this is morbid.  Others prefer not to know.  Respect their wishes but tell them the information is there should they ever want to ask.  Remind them that knowing what conditions run in the family doesn’t mean descendants will ever develop a particular disease.  But it will alert a doctor to monitor a patient’s health and watch for signs that require intervention.

Also, enter the information in your genealogical software if you use one so it’s there for the future.

Do this for yourself and your family.  It could be the ultimate gift of love.

Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist.  You can contact Nancy at