Genealogy in a time of Covid – A personal review of 2020


2020 has been a year like no other – well unless you lived in AD 536. On a personal level we (my family) have been very lucky to live and work in a low Covid-risk environment. At a personal level, however, I found it hard to be able to concentrate on my genealogy work. I thought I would use this short post to highlight what I have been able to achieve and put down a marker to help direct my future work.

The other key problem I have with my genealogy research is that I am running into the “Fog of History”. As my research goes further back in time the quality of the paper-trail documentation gets worse and, for DNA-based research, the probability of errors in interpreting DNA data gets worse. If I have a DNA connection with someone 4 generations back I can be reasonably confident that, if I find a paper-trail connection, it will be correct. If I have a small DNA match with someone 8 or more generations back, when there was less social mobility, it is more likely that I will be related to someone in multiple ways, some of which are recorded and some taken to the grave by those with knowledge of the events.

So the question for myself is what have I achieved and what direction do I take my personal research?

DNA Data

One of my more satisfying pieces of my research is to understand how I am connected to other genealogists via DNA matches. Whilst I have previously written about how static my ancestors were, it is not necessarily true of their siblings. They have moved and settled around the world. To keep track of my matches I record them in a rather clucky spreadsheet. This allows me to keep track of all the people I am genetically connected with and can find a valid paper-trail connection with (i.e. they are “validated matches”).

The year-end makes a good point to have a look at some of the data that comes of this spreadsheet. The stand-out data point is the predominance of matches that are made through the DNA features at Whilst I have my DNA available at all the main players – Ancestry, MyHeritage, 23andMe and LivingDNA, the majority of my validated DNA matches (90%) are at Ancestry. Surprisingly, at least for myself, is the fact that MyHeritage is in second place with 7% of my matches.

I have not kept a detailed track of my wife’s DNA matches, especially since she isn’t even at Ancestry. That said, what few validated DNA matches she has are at MyHeritage. Since her ancestry is within the German-speaking world this is not surprising.

The other statistics I gather off the spreadsheet are probably only of interest to myself although I think this graph my be of some value. This graph shows the number of DNA matches and their relationship. As you can see there are a significant number of matches where our relationship is Xth cousin plus once or twice removed. As luck would have it my ancestors were either the youngest amongst their siblings or the ones who married later in life. From the 106 matches I have identified only 5 have a relationship where they have fewer ancestors to our common ancestors than I have. The other detail that comes through from this graph is the predominance of 4th (35 from 106) and 5th cousins (30 from 106). Within my British-based ancestors I guess this is represents the sweet spot where family sizes were large and infant mortality was decreasing.

Research Work

The Origins of the Grass family in Brandon, Suffolk

My output this year has been relatively thin. I’ve ended up spending much of my time researching the siblings of my ancestors and adding their information to my online family tree. In part I hope that my research will help other genealogists in their work. Still there is one piece of work that I’m happy with. My surname – GRASS, and my paternal line trace their roots back to the sleepy town of Brandon on the Little Ouse in Suffolk. It ends with Henry Grass the base-born son of the widow Elizabeth Grass. This year I have tried to identify all the early Grass families in the Brandon area. There are currently six separate family clusters that may or may not stem from a single paternal line. I hope in the future to progress this research through the, ahem, Grass DNA Surname Project at

What can you learn about your health from your genealogy research

The only other significant research work that I completed this year was a dive into the health, or more specifically the deaths, of my ancestors. I focused on my 16 great, great, grandparents who, it seems, generally lived long lives and were therefore relatively robust individuals. I will admit that my research really didn’t throw up much to illuminate my own health risks, however this may also be the point of my research.

Future Plans

I’ll be honest and admit I don’t have a significant target for my research next year, although I would at least like to progress my research on the Grass family origins.

One thing I know I need to do is tidy up my blog. WordPress changed the editor and the menu system last year and my brain has yet to catch up. Additionally, I suspect it is time to “retire” a number of old articles. Emotionally this is hard, but necessary, work.

I’m guessing that most of my research will be like it currently is – diving down some rabbit-hole inspired by some new piece of information I find. It’s not very scientific, but it keeps me happy.

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Exotic Aldi – Saraswati Dry Gin Review

Everyone has their nemesis. For Captain Ahab it’s Moby Dick, for Dr Doofenschmirtz it’s Perry the Platapus. Mine, it turns out, is a cheap Aldi gin. For the last couple of months I’ve been trying to finish this gin review. It should be a simple things. Drink the gin, write something about how it tastes, then press publish. It’s not been that simple, for a couple of reasons. Firstly I got floored by the manufacturer’s claim that it’s signature botanical is Thai Basil. I can taste something a little like Thai Basil, but it gets lost in the general taste. Secondly I’m beginning to like this gin a lot more than I expected – but more of that latter. Let’s start with the back-story.

Even if you are tea-total, you will have seen the gin-revival of the last decade. We’ve now reached the point where even the artisan gin makers are producing a range of gins. The supermarket own-brands are no exception. As an example we have the Saraswati Dry Gin distributed through Aldi-Süd in Germany.

The Saraswati gin is the Aldi attempt to fit in the “exotic East” niche, competing alongside such established brands as the Ophir, Tangerey Rangapur and the Mombasa Club Gin (I know the last one isn’t geographically in India but it aims at the same spice-vibe)

The Saraswati gin is named after (drum roll) Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of “knowledge, music, art, speech, wisdom, and learning.” To be honest that’s quite a list of attributes to live up to and I’m not sure if the use of the goddess’ name may upset some people.

The botanical list isn’t complete, but majors on juniper, angelica, and coriander as well as a subtle spicy hints of Pandan as well as fresh citrus and peppermint (as a rough translation of “raffiniert-würzige Noten von Pandan sowie frische Zitrus- und Pfefferminzanklänge”)

Design-wise, it’s just a shade away from being a “good-looking gin” The bottle is a classic pharmacy style round with a gold shrink-warp foil. It’s the type of bottle that would look at home on the shelves of and Indian or Thai restaurant. (Which is, I think, damming it with faint praise, as we Brits say).

Finally before we dive into the gin, one point I should raise. The gin is manufactured by Pabst & Richarz. A quick look at their website presents a slightly different take on the Saraswati gin. The screenshot below presents the Saraswati as a Thai and Thai-Basil themed gin. This has thrown me a Asian-vibe curveball as my idea of an Indian-themed and a Thai-themed gin are actually quite different. The only way to decide is to try it, so on to the tasting notes.

Day or Night Gin ? it’s a healthy 40% abv. Sounds perfect for an evening pre-meal drink.

What does it smell of ? It hits a lot of the right notes – juniper, certainly a sweet-citrus note with a hint of herbs – coriander – or possibly Thai-basil.

What does it taste of ? As a pure spirit, it delivers a surprisingly plesent taste. Smooth at first with a gentle warmth and a strong herbal tastes with a mild earthy after-taste. Way better than I was expecting. For my first tasting as a Gin and Tonic I tried it with the Fevertree Mediterranean tonic and pitted it against the Ophir and Tangerey Rangapur; all garnished with Line. Surprisingly none of them came out great. A second testing with the regular Fevertree Tonic Water and Lemon was a way more pleasurable experience, something I really wasn’t expecting. I think that the Saraswati Gin has such a good combination of the Lime and Spice-based botanicals that it needs a regular tonic and Lemon to contrast the tastes.

Buy It ? As my blog has implied, you can buy this from the Aldi, more specifically the Aldi-Süd in Germany in a 0.5 litre bottle. It was available a few months back (October 2020) as a special offer, retaining for 8.49 and then discounted to 6.49. These days a quick twawl of the internet has only found it sold by a few opportunists on eBay.

Overall ? 4 / 5 I really wasn’t expecting this to be a good gin – I guess I’ve been drinking too many cheap gins from the Penny recently. I’m enjoying it way more than I expected. Now I’m not sure if I’ve become a little soft in my old age, or a little stingy by giving it four out of five. I’ve reached the end of the bottle and would buy again, however I’d love to hear your thoughts on this gin, so please do let me know what you think in the comments section.

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On the Origins of the Grass family Surname in the Brandon Area of Suffolk

Yes, I’m sorry about the clumsy title, it’s merely a nod to the revolutionary “On the Origin of Species by Mean of Natural Selection” work by the great Charles Darwin (and Search-engine optimisation).


For many people the interest in family history starts with curiosity about their own surname. I’m no different, especially as my surname, Grass, is rather rare. In this post I want to identify the earliest known Grass families within the Brandon area and the evidence for them. At the moment we are unable to tie these early family cluster together, but I hope this post will be a building block for further DNA research that might help with that.

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Researching the Smiths of Great Ayton


When I first stated to write this (August 2020) the genetic genealogy world was at war with itself over a decision by Ancestry to remove some distant matches from peoples DNA Match List results. It’s all rather sad and frustrating to see such arguments. For myself it was insignificant part of my research and something I do not miss. The annoying thing with the arguments is that they miss the fact that some of the other tools that Ancestry do provide, such as the “Common Ancestors” algorithm. For myself, this tool is way more valuable, as I hope this post will illustrate.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, researching British ancestors splits into two parts. The easy part is after Civil Registration began in 1837. Shortly afterwards, in 1841, the first genealogically-meaningful UK Census occurred. Before this period we are reliant on our ability to interpret the parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. When you have a rare surname, such as “Grass”, my Father’s, it’s so much easier than trying to trace a common surname. My Mum wasn’t blessed with such a unique surname. Her surname, Smith, is the most common surname in the British Isles. One consequence of this for genealogists is that it is much harder, and more error-prone, to research the Smith surname.

In this post I want to illustrate how the “Common Ancestors” feature has turned up a DNA-relative who is helping the research on my Smith line. I’m always incredibly reluctant to use the phrase “prove” with DNA evidence. DNA matches alone rarely prove things and there is enough ambiguity in my family-tree to make other DNA-inheritance scenarios possible.

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The Botanist Islay Dry Gin Review – A walk on the windy side

Truly a work of genius from the Marketing department – and a solid paperweight if you need it

Sometimes it can be hard work trying to find the specific botanicals used to create a gin. The Botanist Islay Dry Gin is different. It “wears it’s heart on it sleeve” and it’s “botanicals on it’s bottle”. As the packaging says it supplements 9 classic gin botanicals with “22 local herbs and flowers, foraged responsibly and by hand from the hills, shores and bogs of this fertile Hebridean Island by our own team of botanical scientists”. These 22 local flavours are, if I understand it correctly,  rather beautifully written on to the sides of the bottle. They are: Tanacetum Vulgare, Juniperus Communis (Common Juniper), Myrica Gale (Bog-myrtle), Artemisia Vulgaris, Mentha Spicata (Spearmint), Chamaemelum Nobile (Chamomile), Galium Verum,  Calluna Vulgaris (Common Heather), Teucrium Scorodonia, Sambucus Nigra (Elder), Cirsium Arvense (Creeping Thistle), Trifolium Repens (White Clover), Crataegus Monogyna, Melissa Officinalis (Lemon Balm), Thymus Polytrichus (Wild Thyme), Mentha X Villosa (Apple Mint), Betula Pubescens, Filipendula Ulmaria, Ulex Europaeus (Gorse), Myrrhis Odorata (Cicely), Trifolium Pratense (Red Clover), Mentha Aquatica (Water Mint).

It’s an impressive list,  although the skeptic in me wonders if this is all gathered in the wild, rather than commercially grown, but I’m not going to argue with “Botanical Scientists” over the distribution of, say, Apple Mint on Islay.

Stepping back a bit from the romantic branding it is important to note that this gin is distilled at the Bruichladdich distillery on Islay, which is itself part of the drinks giant Remy Cointreau. Nothing wrong with this, but don’t be surprised how often you find it, given the distribution power of such a company. Being distilled at the Bruichladdich distillery has it’s positive side – the distillery/distiller has decades of experience  making whisky, something that may be lacking from your recently started artisanal gin-maker.

Day or Night Gin ? This is a 46% abv gin, so reserve it for the evening.

What does it smell of ? As you would expect from the botanicals list this is a wonderfully herbal gin with enough woof to clear your sinuses. Imagine hiking on Islay with the wind in your face.

What does it taste of ? Juniper and the full list of herbal botanicals come to the fore in this gin, with a healthy dose of something spicy (celery seeds / lovage ?). Unlike some of the cheaper gins this has a lovely, sweet aftertaste. Naturally it works well in a G&T.

Buy It ? Available at all good stockists. Online you can purchase it at Amazon, Lidl or any one of a number of online distributors. The 70cl bottle is priced at around €30, but you can also pick up a litre bottle if you ever get to fly again.

Overall ? 5 / 5 This is an excellent gin. Bold, herbal and versatile. It reminds me of the Durham gin that I picked up a few years ago. It can be paired with an Indian or a Mediterranean Tonic and garnished with orange or lemon. Try it, and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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Penny Supermarkt – San Fabio Italian Dry Gin review

The Penny Supermarkt San Fabio Italian Dry Gin

I have a bunch of lovely expensive gins to review, but today it’s time for the San Fabio Italian Dry Gin from German discount supermarket Penny. This gin is, at the moment at least, a special edition alternative to their own rather dull Orsons London Dry Gin. As you may have guessed from the “San Fabio” branding (as well as the name) this is an Italian Dry Gin. So we’re thinking about a citrus-flavoured summer gin, ideal for enjoying as the heat of the day disappears and you sit at a restaurant by the Mediterranean waiting for your evening meal. The botanicals featured here are “Orangen, Mandarinen and Bergmotte”. The first two are clear to english-language readers and the third is for those familiar with citrus-fruit hybridization. As Wikipedia tells me the Bergamot Orange is “a probable hybrid of lemon and bitter orange.” So we are clearly on a citrus vibe. The bottle itself is a rather plain Jane looking clear-glass affair filled by the Kastell Markenspirituosen GmbH in the German city of Rottenburg an der Laaber (not to be confused with the  similarly-named picture-postcard city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber). Kastell make/bottle/distribute a vast range of own-brand spirits to both the Aldi and the Penny, including the aforementioned Orson’s Gin. Let’s try not to hold that against them as we dive into the review:

Day or Night Gin ? This is a 40% ABV gin so I guess the correct answer is somewhere in between day and night – let’s call it an after-work gin.

What does it smell of ? Not too much, a little juniper and citrus – which isn’t bad. It’s neither rocket-fuel bad or Chelsea flower-show fab.

What does it taste of ? It actually delivers what you expect – a light citrus-based gin. Although what it’s missing is a bit of the herbal strength and after-taste of a great gin. If you are making a G&T you need a good (e.g. Fevertree) tonic and a strong herbal garnish. Try something like a slice of grapefruit and sprig of mint.

Buy It ? Well you need to go to the Penny supermarket and hope it’s available. This week there was a bottle on offer at our local Penny. If I remember correctly it was marked down at €6.99 for a bottle. The gin is sadly not listed in the Penny online store, but I guess this may change if the sales figures come through.

Overall ? 3  / 5 I’m probably being a little generous here, but this is a budget gin. It’s certainly a better gin than the Penny Orson’s Gin (although that is damming with faint praise). It will work fine for a round of drinks in the summer, however I would personally suggest you upgrade to the Rewe Feine Welt Diamond of Marrakesh if you want the best of the supermarket gins. Whichever way you go I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Home networking in a time of Covid-19

Until recently my home-network was a nice-to-have facility for my family. With the current coronavirus lockdown my wife is working from home, whilst our two children are also home “remote-learning”. The IT infrastructure at our house has become significantly more important. since I’m the “IT Support guy” for the family it’s my job to make sure it all works. As a result I’ve made a few investments in our family’s IT and I thought I would share what I’ve been doing. To make it easier to read I’ve split it into two sections. The first covers what I’ve bought and the second is the steps you should take to protect your home environment. For the stuff I’ve bought I cannot claim that every item is “the best in class”, but it’s all stuff I’m happy to recommend.

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DNA Testing – Ethnicity Estimates – 2020 Edition

When I was young my identity was clear, I was from “the top end of North Yorkshire”. My Mum grew up in a village 3 miles from where I lived and my Dad in a different village 2 miles away. As I got older I learnt of some of my ancestors who came from further away. My paternal grandfather was from East Anglia and my Grandma was a Stewart, which I assumed meant her family was originally from Scotland. Much later, as a genealogist, I learnt of many of the other villages that my ancestors came from. These villages were mostly found in the Vale of York, but with some as far afield as south Durham.

So when I first started taking DNA tests I was unduly excited about the idea that I might actually be from “somewhere else”. Perhaps I have ancestry from somewhere other than Britain. The results came with the occasional hint that I might have German, French or Spanish ancestry maybe even a little Pashtun ancestry. That said, as I developed my family tree further back in time it became clear that there was no identifiable “non-British” ancestry. Over time I’ve also begun to understand the science, processes and shortcomings behind the “Ethnicity Estimates” that the DNA testing companies provide. With that knowledge my excitement about Ethnicity Estimates has diminished, although I still understand the enchantment of such results.

I’ve written a couple of times in 2015 and 2017 about my ethnicity results. Since then most of the major testing companies have refined their algorithms and produced updated results for their customers. I thought it was time to re-visit my results and review how “close” they are to my known ancestry.

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Lidl Sturmflut London Dry Gin Review – A drop too much

Sturmflut is a London Dry Gin sold by the Lidl here in Germany. The English translation of the name, as you may have already guessed, is Stormflood. The name commemorates those events that have affected, in particular, the northern parts of Germany, such as St Lucia’s Flood (which created the Zuider zee) and Saint Marcellus’ flood. I mention this in part, because I find it more interesting than the gin, but we’ll get back to that. The “northerness” of the gin is expressed in the botanicals used to flavour this gin. The bottle give a handy list: juniper, star anise, caraway, liquorice, cinnamon, tea, malt, honey and mandarin (or Wacholder, Steranis, Kümmel, Lakritz, Zimt, Tee, Malz, Honig and Mandarin in German). Now, you can argue til the cows come home about how authentic this list is, but I can see where the idea comes from. Cinnamon and tea have a touch of the north german about then, thanks to the traders of the Hanseatic League, whilst liquorice is popular in a number of northern countries, such as the Haribo Schnecken, the Dutch dropje, the Scandinavian equivalents or even the trusty Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts. The question is how does liquorice work in a gin ?

Day or Night Gin ? This is a 43% abv gin and, given the botanicals, I think you might want to take a seat and draw the curtains for the night before you partake.

What does it smell of ? Now at this point I’m guessing you’re expecting me to say liquorice, however the smell is very much a straight-up juniper aroma.

What does it taste of ? As a pure spirit you first get to taste the juniper, with a slightly sweet note of honey, and possibly a little of the tea. The aftertaste is where the liquorice jumps out. Gentle reader – I did try this as a gin and tonic and I honestly cannot find a tonic pairing and garnish that are going to help you. As an alternative it can be taken with a ginger ale – naturally assuming you are a fan of both ginger and liquorice. It’s an interesting combination. The ginger comes out immediately with the liquorice quickly knocking the ginger off your palate.

Buy It ? It has been available in th Lidl shops for a few months and you may still see it sitting in “specials” shelf. Otherwise I assume it’s permanently available via the Lidl online store. The current price is €8.99.

Overall ? 1/5 No, for me it doesn’t work BUT if you like the taste of liquorice with your liquor then don’t let me stop you. If you do buy it I could imagine drinking it as a straight chaser, much like you would drink a german korn. If you do buy it then I’d love to hear your thought on it in the comments section below.

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Health, Death, Genetics and the Genealogist.


As the market for DNA tests for genealogists matures, it has been natural for the genetic genealogy companies to leverage their customer base into further DNA testing. Recently genetic genealogy companies MyHeritage, LivingDNA and Ancestry have all announced DNA tests for the “health” market. This is a natural commercial fit for the companies, and indeed one that 23andMe has always utilised. Whilst all genealogy companies have this potential for cross-selling and data mining I believe that Ancestry especially, this is a potential gold-mine. They have all the right ingredients to build this market; the largest subscriber base of genealogists and a mostly US customer base that has already used DNA testing for genealogy and live in a country with probably the most advanced health-care system in the world. This, you would think, is the perfect storm for Ancestry to emulate the success 23andMe has had in creating the commercial tie-up with pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham.

For the demand side there are also drivers. The increased understanding of the genetic causes of some illnesses combined with the increased public awareness of the availability of DNA testing means that consumers are much more willing to seek information on their own genetic risks.

Ancestry’s entry into the DNA health market is twofold. There is a rather useful announcement on the products, from which I’ve culled most of the intelligent text below.

AncestryHealth Corethis is Ancestry’s “Base” offering. The test you take is a basic DNA Microarray test. The results you get back cover “a set of curated, common ‘need to know’ health conditions and includes printable family health history and lab reports people can share with their healthcare provider ” The actual test is aiming to identify “heart disease, hereditary cancers, blood-related disorders, and risks for carrier status of health conditions, such as Tay-Sachs disease.” This tests cost US $149 or US $ 49 for people who have already taken the existing Ancestry genetic genealogy test.

AncestryHealth Plus is an altogether more-interesting and comprehensive test. For a start the test is using NGS (Next Generation Sequencing) to sequence the exome (the protein-coding regions of genes). The test is therefore “providing both greater coverage of DNA differences for each condition and more risk categories such as those related to potentially developing heart disease, cancers, and disorders related to blood, the nervous system and connective tissues“. The pricing model is also different. When the test is available (which is sometime in early 2020) it will cost US $199 with a six-monthly subscription cost of US $49. “The ongoing membership will include quarterly screening updates, more educational resources and enhanced tools for family health history and healthcare provider collaboration” The key concept here is that the health results will be continually updated on the basis of new research findings on health-affecting DNA issues.

With both tests the purchaser will have the tests ordered for them by a physician (part of PWNHealth group). This neatly side-steps any issues with the US Food and Drug Administration dept. As you may have gathered from the description of the service, at least initially, will only be available to US residents (with the exception of New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island residents who appear to be restricted from ordering by state laws)

What can I learn about my genetic health ?

Given all of the above I have been curious as to what my personal genealogical knowledge could add to understanding of my health and my health risks. In addition I wanted to see the potential genetic health information that Ancestry could “mine” from my online family history. I was also inspired by this blog posting from genetic councellor Brianne KirkpatrickDNA Testing and Family Medical History: A short Intro for Genealogists

At this point I should mention that this blog posting will naturally cover some of my and my family’s heath issues. I have been in two minds about making such personal information public, but since my parents both died over a decade ago I do not feel that such information needs to be kept private and my own health information isn’t really so shocking.

For this investigation I thought I would look at my health information in two ways. Firstly I will utilise the information that it typically available to most folks through their family network, for example, the illnesses and causes of death of my parents and grand-parents. The second approach is to put on my genealogist’s hat and look at the information that I have as a typical genealogist might dig up. Specifically I wanted to research the causes of death of all my 16 great-great-grandparents (which is the last generation I have complete knowledge of).

Before I dive into discussing health issues and there possible genetic causes please remember that I’m not a doctor and am, to be honest, I’m “winging it” based on the knowledge obtained from quick Google searches.

The Causes of Death of my Parents and Grandparents

Let’s start with my Grandparents. Unlike many people I had little experience of my grandparents – two died before I was born, a third before I was six years old, which left my grandmother who was senile for most of the time I knew her. Whilst part of this is due to a family “tradition” of marrying late it does at least suggest that I should check my grandparents health issues.

Below is the raw data on my grandparents’ deaths as I remember it from discussions with my parents and as culled from their death certificates.


Person Age Cause of Death (Family Lore) Cause of Death (Death Certificate)
Paternal G-father 46 failed Thyroid operation 1.a. Cardiac degeneration
1.b. Ophthalmic Goitre *
1.c. Operation Thyroidectomy
Paternal G-mother 93 Old Age 1.a Bronchopneumonia
1.b. Congestive cardiac failure
Maternal G-father 76 Cancer 1.a Cachexia
1.b. Carcinoma of Stomach (Operation)
Maternal G-mother 79 A stroke 1.a. Cerebral haemorrhage

Looking at this data it seems there are more problems with the data than information. Specifically this data, taken at face value:

  • says nothing about their illnesses and general health before their deaths. I’ve no idea, for example, if any of them smoked during their lives. Just as importantly I’m not really sure about any other illnesses they may have had through their lives.
  • needs to be read in the context of their environment. All of my grandparents came from relatively poor backgrounds. Their diet and lifestyle would reflect this. Given that they lived through both World Wars, it’s possible their health was further affected by food shortages they experienced during their lives.
  • Medical terminology baffles me. Whilst the internet provides me with the explanations it still requires me to understand and interpret this information.

Still there are a couple of important data points that need to be observed.

  • Three out of four grandparents actually lived reasonably long lives. My maternal grandfather, who I imagined dying early from cancer, was actually 76 at his death.
  • My paternal grandfather clearly had some sort of thyroid health issue. He appears to have had Graves’ Disease. From my genealogy research I found his Army discharge records from 1917, some 15 years before his death, here it stated he was discharged due to “Exopthalmic Goitre”. Researching if this is a genetic condition led me to the website of the U.S. National Library of Medicine which states that “Most of the genetic variations that have been discovered are thought to have a small impact on a person’s overall risk of developing this condition“, so I’m hoping I’m in the clear for inheriting this.

My parents’ deaths provide some more data. As before interpretation of this information seems to be the hard part:


Person Age Cause of Death Cause of Death (Death Certificate)
Dad 78 Heart Attack, Stomach Cancer 1.a. Cardiac degeneration
1.b. Ophthalmic Goitre *
1.c. Operation Thyroidectomy
Mum 72 Motor Neurone Disease 1.a Bronchopneumonia
1.b. Congestive cardiac failure

Clearly both of them had medical conditions that resulted in their deaths.

  • As my Mum experienced Motor Neurone Disease (MND) is a horrible illness and there are four known genes (C9orf72, SOD1, FUS and TARDBP) that may play a part in people developing “familial MND”. However, familial MND only covers 1 in 15 people who are affected by MND. As an information sheet from the Oxford University Hospitals department says “the absolute lifetime risk of any individual developing MND is roughly 0.3 percent, a small increase in risk still means that the chance of developing the disease for anyone with a relative with sporadic MND is still very low.” If MND is a condition you are concerned about, this information on “Is MND Hereditary” is an excellent primer.
  • My Dad’s death was more complicated. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but was also suffering from problems with his heart. This, however, all occurred within the the last six months of his life, when he was already relatively old. I know he smoked during his youth, but I don’t know for how long and how much. Given this and what else  I know of his health, it’s hard to see that there was a significant genetic cause for his death.

The deaths of my Great Great Grandparents

Approaching the issue of Family Health from the genealogist’s perspective I looked at the causes of the deaths of my gg Grandparents. The first thing I realised was that I knew very little about their deaths, sometimes not even when exactly they died. This is due the approach genealogists typically take. We tend to research in our ancestors mostly to confirm their position in the family tree. This means that we research their births and marriages through birth and marriage certificates. In Great Britain a birth certificate will normally confirm the parents’ names whilst a marriage certificate will record the bride and grooms Fathers’ names and their occupation. Once our ancestors are married and have given birth to the next generation they are, in some sense, of less interest – they have performed their biological function.

My first task here was to order up most of the death certificates for my g-grandparents. The results are collated below:

Person Age Died Cause of Death (Death Certificate)
George Grass 86 15-Dec-1915 1. Pleurisy (infection) 2. Cardiac Failure
Charlotte Whittle 75 18-Dec-1895 …deceased hanged herself … whilst temporarily Insane
Horace Basham 87 27-Jun-1921 Senile Decay
Eliza Bowers 83 21-Sep-1915 Senile Decay
George Lambert 66 16-May-1890 Chronic Bronchial Catarrh, Senile Decay
Sarah Readman 81 17-Apr-1913 Senile Decay, Cardiac Failure 5 days
John Sturdy 49 18-Jan-1868 Double Pneumonia of 36 hours
Jane Bendelow 76 20-Oct-1903 Cerebral haemorrhage 4 days Hemiplagia &
John Smith 66 23-Aug-1991 Paralysis 7 days, Hemiplegia
Mary Hall 80 01-Oct 1897-1901 Gastro Enteritis
Thomas Cornforth 75 22-Jan-1895 Cardiac Disease
Ann Atkinson 71 21-Jul-1891 Acute Laryngitis 24 hours Tracheotomy 4 hours
John Stewart 66 11-Oct-1877 Cardiac dropsy
Jane Bell 76 28-Jul-1892 Bronchitis
Thomas Armstrong 67 14-Jun-1883 Cirrhosis
Maria Singleton Angus 67 22-Aug-1886 Heart Disease, Dropsy some years Syacope

If you prefer a more visual image I’ve mapped the location of their deaths.

Looking at the date we can see ancestors lived a reasonable age. Whilst the youngest death died aged 49, the average (mean) age at death was over 73, whilst the oldest lasted until aged 87. Even Charlotte Whittle, who committed suicide, lived beyond the average age of this group. It also shows that my gg-grandparents lived on average as long as my parents and grandparents. They were clearly a strong bunch.

There are a number of problems with this type of analysis:

  • The causes of death, as recorded in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century are even harder for me to interpret than later records, especially given my lack of medical knowledge. I honest don’t know what Cardiac Dropsy is (apart from a heart issue). Perhaps this is also indicative of the lack of knowledge of the patients, their family and the local GP who recorded the deaths.
  • “Senile Decay” is recorded in three of the deaths. I guess this is typical of the age. It’s very unspecific, although perhaps it’s enough for my research to indicate there is no major-risk issue.
  • There is something of a “Survivor Bias” here. All my ancestors were physically fit enough to live to adulthood and have children. Their siblings may have not been so lucky/healthy and may be worth further investigation.

I’ll be honest I was somehow expecting to gain some more insights from this analysis – both from the health perspective and from a family history view.

Final Thoughts

In this research I have deliberately avoided looking at what I could learn from the genetic health reporting that 23andMe and now Ancestry provide. I wanted to concentrate on the information I could find as a genealogist only. For those who have taken DNA tests at other companies there are also a number of third-party sites, like who can also provide an analysis of your potential genetic risks.

Clearly, in my case, the history of my parents’ health is the most useful indicate of potential health issues. For any discussions that I would be having with my doctor their illnesses would be the most important to highlight. If/when you are having this type of discussion with a doctor you may find that the “My Family Health Portrait Tool” from the U.S. Center for Disease Control provides an excellent starting point for recording the information that you know about your family’s health.

This brings me to one of the other key points of my research. Understanding health issues for a simple soul like myself is difficult, both in terms of the terminology and the impact illnesses and hereditary conditions will have on your life. As we gain more knowledge of our genetic risks we need to be able to have this information correctly interpreted. Whilst this work can be done through a doctor there is clearly a role for “Genetic Counsellors”  to help you evaluate the issues and risks associated with any genetic health issues.

Whilst I’m not a doctor, I suspect that for many people their genetic health risks play a significantly less important role that their lifestyle health risks. The usual recommendations for leading a healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol-use) are probably far more important. On top of this there is always the fact that your life and health could be affected by something other than illness – the proverbial being hit by a bus type of accident (true story – it happened to my brother, he got quite a bang but is OK now)

I suspect the issue of survivor bias is important in this type of research. One thing I know from my genealogical research is how often my ancestors’ siblings died during childhood. I suspect this was often an effect of living in poverty, but there could have been some genetic causes.

Looking at this information from the perspective of the genealogy companies it is clear that it is hard to categorise and sell this type of information, along with your DNA results, to third-parties. 23andMe have always sought to engage with their customer base to understand their health issues and connect them to their DNA. I suspect this is the only way to obtain meaningful health information for their customers.

Finally, as you may have gathered from this article, I’m no health expert. Please feel free to comment on this article if you think I’ve misinterpreted any of the health issues, or if you have any other thoughts on this topic.



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