Medical Genealogy – Ancestral Maladies Affecting Today’s Generations

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By Amanda Forson,

While researching my great grandfather’s grandfather on my mother’s side, I found some startling new information that leads me to believe that understanding one’s medical genealogy may help prevent future illness or at least reduce the possibility of early death.

Direct ancestor of the author, Lewis Kinner, died “1878 20-Jun. D Kinner, Lewis Died–In Jackson, June 12, 1878, of dropsy and eripipelas [erysipelas] after a lingering illness, Lewis Kinner, aged 72 years.” (1) What was this illness mentioned within the obituary? Was the illness passed on by heredity? After looking up the terms used in the obituary, dropsy turned into oedema, and erysipelas remained the same. Further looking up the definitions of these terms produced the following results:

Edema (American English) or oedema (British English), formerly known as dropsy or hydropsy, is swelling of any organ or tissue due to accumulation of excess lymph fluid, without an increase of the number of cells in the affected tissue. Edema can accumulate in almost any location in the body, but the most common sites are the feet and ankles… Increased hydrostatic pressure inside the blood vessel (for example in heart failure) will have the same effect… Causes of peripheral edema are: congestive heart failure (2)

Erysipelas was “an acute, febrile infectious disease, caused by a specific streptococcus, characterized by diffusely spreading deep-red inflammation of the skin or mucous membranes.”(3)

The Wikipedia search for dropsy showed that it was a symptom of congestive heart failure. My 2005 began with the death of my mother due to an unexpected stroke. Looking back on her medical conditions at the time, she had the swelling in the legs that was one symptom possibly of congestive heart failure. Other symptoms include:

Left Heart Failure: Symptoms of decompensated heart failure include dyspnea (shortness of breath) on exertion, orthopnea (dyspnea that increases upon lying down), fatigue and paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea (“cardiac asthma”, shortness of breath that occurs hours or minutes after lying down). Nocturnal cough, [c]onfusion and memory impairment (in advanced stages), and diaphoresis and cool extremities at rest.(4)

Thinking back upon her medical conditions prior to her death, she exhibited all the signs of this condition. Outside of the stroke, part of what she was diagnosed with directly preceding her death was hydropericardium, found in the following article (definition) of the topic of oedema:

Oedema- “The presence of abnormally large amounts of fluid in the intercellular tissue spaces of the body, usually applied to demonstrable accumulation of excessive fluid in the subcutaneous tissues. Oedema may be localized, due to venous or lymphatic obstruction or to increased vascular permeability or it may be systemic due to heart failure or renal disease. Collections of oedema fluid are designated according to the site, for example … hydropericardium (pericardial sac)…”(5)

Physically, my mother took after her mother’s father’s side. That side is where the obituary headlining this article comes from. Although her grandfather died when he was in his late eighties, my mother’s genes manifested the genes of her grandfather’s family, and although granting her a long life according to her physical health conditions, killed her early compared to the current average death age in western societies of seventy-five. She died at 51. Learning this medical genealogy does not necessarily have me scared, but cautious. I take after my mother’s side of the family, although I am unsure of the genes that may manifest themselves in my lifetime.

Everyone has different medical genealogies, whether it is sickle cell anemia, high blood pressure, glucose problems, or Thalassemia. The lifestyles of all ancestors do affect their individual life spans. However, advances in knowledge of exercise, nutrition, and medical technology make a difference. If someone knew that their family had x disease and decided to ward off the effects or even eliminate the effects of the disease by changing their eating, exercising and other habits, it makes sense that they would do what it took to allow themselves to live longer. Researching a family’s medical history may change the life spans of family members. Whether it is removing an organ prone to disease in lieu of getting cancer, or simply taking a daily walk to revive the heart, a person can take control of many diseases simply if they know that they exist within their family history.


1 Tice, Joyce M. “Tioga County, and some Bradford County, Newspaper Abstracts, Pennsylvania, Wellsboro Gazette 1878,” Tri-Counties Genealogy & History. [Published online.] (Joyce M. Tice: Tri-Counties Site), 15 Jul 2002, Accessed 17 Jan 2007.

2 “Edema,”[Published online.] 6 Jan 2007. Accessed 17 Jan 2007.

3 “Erisypelas,” [Published online.] (Lexico Publishing Group, LLC), 2007, Accessed 17 Jan 2007.

4 “Congenital Heart Failure,”[Published online.] 12 Jan 2007. Accessed 17 Jan 2007.

5 “Oedema,” The CancerWEB Project.[Published online.] (The Centre for Cancer Education: University of Newcastle upon Tyne), 2005, Accessed 17 Jan 2007.

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