May 15, 2000 -- If you are thinking about compiling a family health history,
the Royal North Shore Hospital's Genetics Education Program in Sydney,
Australia, gives details on constructing family health tree diagrams and
depicts the universally understood health tree symbols to use in the
The hospital's online guide lists these conditions of interest, among
others, in compiling a family health history:
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Joan Kirchman Mitchell, chair of the National Genealogical Society's
committee on family health history, provides these questions as a starting
point for your history:
What illnesses, health conditions, or surgeries did the relative have, and
What was the exact diagnosis in each case?
How old was the person when the illness began? How old was the person at
If the person is deceased, when and where did he or she die? What was the
cause of death?
What did the person look like? Did he or she have any unusual or abnormal
Did the person smoke, drink excessively, or abuse drugs?
Is there any history of mental illness or very unusual personality traits
How many pregnancies did your female relatives have? What were the
outcomes? (live birth, miscarriage, aborted fetus, twins)
Where did the person live and work? What was their occupation?
What was the racial or ethnic background of the person?
Deciphering Archaic Medical Terms
The farther back in time your research goes, the more likely you are to
encounter old-fashioned names for diseases. For instance, people used to refer
to stroke as apoplexy and tuberculosis as consumption. These inconsistencies
can make it difficult to follow the history of a disease in your family.
The Center for Archival Collections at Bowling Green State University in
Ohio has compiled a helpful list of ancient names for diseases and their modern
counterparts in an article in the newsletter Archival Chronicle.
That way, when an uncle tells you about the incidence of "dropsy" on
your mother's side of the family, you'll know what he's talking about.
Claudia Willen writes about environmental issues and is the
author of several books on computer programming. She is based in San