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