06 April 2013

Medical records useful in genealogical research

John Winthrop the Younger (1606-1676)
At a recent auction, “doctors’ appointment books, journals, etc., early prescriptions starting with 1830s, early medical treatment publications and records” were being sold along with a collection of more than “35 odd and unique medical devices, doctor bags, and tools.”

One can only hope that the papers—if not the “antique and vintage medical devices” and instruments—were sold together to a serious collector, a museum, or an archive to preserve the data for future generations. Why?

Medical records provide information on ailments, diseases, and matters of life and death. An individual’s records often define family relationships while a doctor’s records can portray a microcosm of a community. Finding your ancestors in such records can help your genealogical research—if you can find the records.

Early Medical Records

John Winthrop the Younger (1606-1676) was the founder of Ipswich, Massachusetts, and later governor of Connecticut. He also was a practicing physician, seeing perhaps a dozen patients a day. He recorded medical notes in his journals, which are useful today to track our ancestors and their illnesses. The Winthrop family papers 1537-1900 are at the Massachusetts Historical Society, available on microfilm. Almost 1,000 pages are John Winthrop the Younger’s medical notes covering the years 1657-1669. Pam’s Genealogy Page extracts a portion of the names mentioned in the records and indexed them on her site. (Don't confuse the Younger with his father, John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony and his famous journal, now known as the History of New England 1630-1649.)

Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote the book, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812. Using diary entries, Ulrich created interpretive essays on medicine, childbirth, home life, and much more. While Ballard recorded names, dates, births, marriages, and deaths in her diary, Ulrich selectively used Ballard's diary entries. However, the complete diary is available online for searching and reading. 

Other Journals

Sometimes journals not necessarily medical in nature or by a physician can give you medical and personal clues about your ancestors. For instance, John Haven Dexter's Memoranda of the Town of Boston in the 18th and 19th Centuries, published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society and available as a database to members, records many births, marriages, deaths, funerals—and much more. Dexter mentions the marriage of John Gardner Gibson and Catherine Hammond, daughter of Samuel, in 1833. Five years later he writes "John G. Gibson, of Boston, [died] on board brig Leander, from St. Iago de Cuba, to Europe, May 12, 1838." Dexter's accounts may not be in other records, or may offer more personal details.

In the Journals of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813) of Marblehead under the date 1 May 1774, Bowen wrote: "Robert Nimblett hath smallpox." Since Nimblett died before 1800, this could be the last surviving record in which he appears. Even though Bowen doesn't record Nimblett's death, it's possible he died shortly thereafter. 

Where to Find Records

Apparently, medical records, prescriptions, doctor's journals, and the like can show up at auctions, on eBay, in private collections, and at the dump. Luckily, some records have been deposited in archives, from local historical and genealogical societies and museums to medically themed research centers. Some journals, whether by physicians or by observant townspeople, have been published in print, online, and in databases. Remember when you're on location in your ancestral place, to look for medical and personal journals within your specific timeframe. 

No comments:

Post a Comment