|Genetics & Genealogy|
GENEALOGISTS CAN USE GENETIC PRINCIPALS AND METHODS
There are two primary ways genealogists can productively use the methods and resources of genetics:
1. Family Health Histories
Quite noticeable now at national and local genealogical conferences is the introduction of family health history as a track of genealogical lectures. The discussions often concern large pedigrees or family histories depicting one or more genetic problems scattered throughout the family. Sometimes discussion concerns how to gain this kind of information in interviewing relatives. Oftentimes there will be presentations showing how to draw pedigrees with the accepted symbols now in use. Sometimes there will be discussions of marriage of close relatives and its possible effect in bringing out genetic disease. Sometimes these genetic problems are well diagnosed but in a large portion of cases of genetic counseling, not enough information is currently known to make a proper medical diagnosis or identification with a specific gene. Families can help to clarify the diagnosis by developing large personal pedigrees for further medical and molecular analysis. Furthermore if it is known that a specific family could be at risk for a genetic problem later in life, knowing this ahead of time can be useful in warding off the burden, or preventing early death from the condition. For example, if it is known that a branch of the family has had several individuals die of early onset colon cancer, this knowledge can lead to attempts for early diagnosis through colonoscopies, possible removal of tumors before metastasis and thus removal of the threat of the cancer. This is true for breast cancer, too, and probably any other cancerous condition that shows familial early onset. To be genetically forewarned is to be medically forearmed.
There are aspects, however, of sensitivity and confidentiality that enter into this kind of genealogical research. Including information about genetic problems on living individuals or just previous generations in published family histories can be risky for the families afflicted. Publishing or even knowing about a serious genetic risk could lead to denial of insurance and in some cases denial of employment. Thus publishing genetic information in a family history can be risky as well for the genealogist who divulges this information usually gained in confidence. An interesting example is the Lovejoy Genealogy by Clarence Earle Lovejoy, 1930, 466pp. The author as well as Alexander Graham Bell had studied several generations of this family and noted a significant number of deaf individuals. The author perhaps not wishing to identify each deaf individual outright, but wishing to preserve the information, placed a double helical sign before the entry of each deaf family member. Only someone with some knowledge of deafness in the family would understand the meaning of the symbol. I presume the author was legally protected because no one living today is shown with the symbol, and furthermore no one can prove the symbol means deafness. I discovered the association within minutes of opening the book, and this discovery also lead to the purchase of a personal copy, perhaps a "plus" for the author or his estate.
There is another problem of where to archive sensitive information of this kind. Suppose a genealogist takes it upon himself to gather this information for medical or genetic use by the family. In later generations it could become more useful. Should he or she make it available to others in the family? It cannot be published, so what happens if the genealogist dies? Who knows enough about what should be retained? I don't know the answers to these questions. But I can make an attempt to answer the next question: How much can you tell one branch of the family about sensitive confidential genetic issues of another branch of the family, even if it is "all in the family," and besides you suspect both branches of the family already know all there is to know about the other? The answer is a resounding "nothing."