23 April 2013

Physicians in the family

Dr. John Warren
What kinds of records can you find if your ancestor was in the medical profession?

In many ways, physicians are public figures, well-known in their communities. You'll find them listed in city directories, featured in town histories (the so-called mug books), and mourned in their obituaries. They may have advertised their services in local newspapers, published scholarly articles on their research or medical cases (perhaps in the New England Journal of Medicine, first published in 1812), lectured at medical schools, or kept detailed journals. Their medical records may have been deposited in archives, from local historical and genealogical societies and museums to medical associations, hospitals, and universities.

Finding the Degree

Not all doctors, nurses, midwives, and others in the medical profession attended medical schools. Some were apprentices, sometimes taking over their mentors' practices. Over time, the barbers and bonesetters became degreed medical professionals.

Massachusetts is home to four medical schools: Harvard Medical School, founded in 1782; New England Female Medical College, founded in 1848, which became Boston University School of Medicine in 1873; Tufts University School of Medicine, founded in 1893; and University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, founded in 1962. Look for school histories, alumni directories, yearbooks, reunion records, and archival holdings. 

AMA Directory

The American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in 1847. At the turn of the 20th century, the AMA started to collect information on physicians nationwide, whether or not they were AMA members, and compiled its first American Medical Directory in 1906. Information on each doctor was kept on 4 x 6” index cards until 1970, when the AMA started to use a computer database to track doctors instead. The cards of physicians who died prior to 1970, now called the AMA Deceased Physicians Masterfile, became part of the AMA Archives. In 1993, the AMA printed the two-volume Directory of Deceased American Physicians 1804-1929, with biographical profiles. It is available as part of a paid subscription on Ancestry.com. A finding aid for the Masterfile is available online, to help you find doctors who died between 1906-1969 within the 87.5 linear feet of original documents. FamilySearch has images online. 

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.