Thursday, November 4, 2010

Diabetes and Genealogy

Diabetes was first diagnosed in the 17th century when Dr. Thomas Willis of London sampled the urine of patients and found it sweet. This fascinating, yet also disgusting, moment was the historical beginning of diabetes research. It had been recognized as a wasting disease for 2,000 years. Blood sugar levels were not discovered until the 20th century.

And so, tracing a family history of diabetes seems to be difficult. Early records don’t always list a cause of death. Are you recording the “cause of death” when you find death records for your genealogy? Even so, causes were often just guesses like “kidney disease”, “Bright’s disease” or “malnutrition” because the patients died emaciated. There are two types of diabetics, and the records don’t show if they had type 1 (insulin dependent) or type 2.

The first person in the family tree I learned of dying from diabetes was my grandfather’s little brother, Franklin Sherman Allen. He was born on 6 April 1907 and died on 2 December 1914 at age 7. On this same side of the family, my uncle, a diabetic, died in 2003, my aunt (his sister) died of complications of diabetes in 2004. My mother was just diagnosed (their sister) and another brother has it for years. That is four out of seven siblings.

Their mother, my grandmother, also was diabetic, a double whammy for the children. Her great aunt, Melvina T. Hitchings died in 1905 at the Danvers Asylum of nephritis (kidneys) and delirium, which sounds suspiciously like diabetes to me. In 1905 there were no good blood tests to confirm diabetes, like there were just decades later.

On my father’s side of the family, my 3x great grandfather Luther Simonds Munroe died of diabetes at age 46 in 1851. His nephew, Jonas Symonds Munroe, died of it in 1903. These are early diagnoses, but I’ve noticed many men on this side of the family dying before middle age, some in their 20s and 30s. The records are silent on the causes. I don’t know any recent deaths on this side due to diabetes, but I’m sure that those genes are being carried along. One uncle and one cousin on this side have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. How the doctors came up with a cause of death as diabetes in 1851 or 1903 is still a mystery to me.

And so, along with all my medical history, my husband was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. We immediately asked his mother and father about the family history. His father’s side doesn’t seem to carry this, but on his mother’s side her double first cousin (two brothers married two sisters) has Type 2. This is not good news for my daughter! However, type 2 diabetes is very correctable with diet, exercise and weight loss. It is a lifetime diagnosis, however today it can be carefully followed with blood glucose monitors, and controlled with medication. It is no longer considered a death sentence.

Are you monitoring your family’s health history in your genealogical records?

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. As a type 2, I was fascinated by your history of the disease and your suspicions on old types of death. Maybe I need to revisit this. Interesting, thanks.

  2. Heather - Such an interesting post. Many years ago I saw a wonderful drama on PBS about Frederick Banting and Charles Best who were researching diabetes/insulin in the early part of the 20th century. Diabetes is a difficult disease. We have a young family friend with type 1. So much time revolves around managing the disease, for everyone in the family. I wish you and your husband the best with his type 2.

    And yes, I am very interested in the health issues of past generations. I've been progressively losing my hearing over the last 13 years, the result of otosclerosis which I inherited from my mom. Thankfully, I just received word from my doctor that I am an excellent candidate for corrective surgery. I'm luckier than my ancestors. At least I have the option to have mine fixed. Beethoven's hearing loss has been attributed to otosclerosis. What would corrective surgery done for him? Wow, just think about it.

  3. Wonderful example of exploring the roots of a genetic factor. With several type 2s in the family you've sent me back to the records to explore.

    Sorry about your husband's recent diagnosis, but you are correct about management. Best of luck.

    And Cynthia - delighted to know there's a potential fix for you. We'll be awaiting a symphony...

  4. Oh, Cynthia, best of luck with your surgery! I've gotten so much private email about diabetes today. Now, who will invent a surgery for diabetes? Wouldn't that be great?

  5. In the past most of the people with diabetes would have been type 1. Franklin Allen who died at age 7 was most likely type 1. They used to call it Juvenile Diabetes. Today we are seeing Type 2 in children because of the diets and obesity, along with plaque in their arteries and high blood pressure in kids.

    In type 1 it is when the cells in the pancreas stopped producing insulin. The thinking was that some sort of a viral infection caused the destruction.

    Type 2 is on the increase today because of our lack of exercise and poor diets and a large incidence of increased weight. It was relatively unknown when we all toiled at work. The cells in the pancreas become unable to hand the amount glucose in the body.

    The kidney disease with delirium could have been a massive infection (sepsis) this would have caused the delirium and death.

    Antibiotics would have ended the infection.

  6. Yes, I do record cause of death when I know it. And I was made aware of the need to be vigilant about diabetes by my Aunt Joy as her son, my cousin, had it. Sorry to hear about your husband's diagnosis, and wish him the best of luck in his efforts to manage it.

    Cynthia - this is wonderful news. I work with one person who has hearing loss and live with another - it's not easy for them to deal with it.

  7. Thank you all for your kind comments about my hearing loss. It is difficult, but like anything you figure it out and live with it the best you can. The hardest part for me is I'm a singer. After twenty years of voice lessons it's hard keeping up, but I do what I can.

    Talking about family history and medical issues, my mom had the same problem. I don't know for sure, but I suspect it came from her dad's side of the family. Apparently otosclerosis effects women more often than men. Her dad may have carried the gene but never shown signs. My audiologist said my son might not get it but if he has a daughter she might.

    If anyone is interested I read a really interesting book a while back called The Language of Genes by Steve Jones. It really puts what we're talking about here into perspective.

    Heather, again, I wish you and your husband all the best in managing his type 2.

  8. Cynthia, I have noticed that on some census records, deafness is noted. I've done some research on this and helped Harold Leach with his article in the New England Ancestors magazine by NEHGS on a Wilkinson family with deafness. Also, in my research on Martha's Vineyard, there were many generations of deaf residents. They were quite numerous in certain families, and even developed their own system of sign language which survived for years probably because of the island's isolation. All these little medical genealogy stories are fascinating to me.

  9. Oh my goodness, your research project sounds so interesting. Martha's Vineyard makes perfect sense. Also, I would love to read the Wilkinson article. Could you provide a reference? FYI, otosclerosis usually, not always, but usually comes on later in life. Often during a person's 30s or 40s.

    You simply MUST read The Language of Genes. Fascinating reading.

  10. Cynthia, try this link For New England Ancestors, Volume 9.2, page 38 "Of Brick Walls and Pack Rats". It was written by Harold Leach (I think he's a trustee at NEHGS now) and he knew I had a big database of all the Wilkinsons. In the article both Samuel Wilkinson and his wife Lucy Ham (married in 1852) were deaf mutes, and we knew this from census records, etc.