Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Is it Genetic?

I think it is pretty horrifying to most modern women to think of what some of our ancestors did in the realm of childbirth.  You rarely ever see a family with more than 4 children and when you do, it is a bit shocking to our modern sensibilities.  For a wife in the early 20th century or earlier – large families were common and even necessary.  Every family needed a lot of hands to get the work done.  Everything that I have learned about my great great grandmother has come from other cousins whose family members had knowledge of her.  What I have found out…has raised some interesting questions!

John Ward Kelley & Melvina Robertson
Melvina Robertson was born about 19 July 1849 to Charles Robinson, Jr. and Catherine Shelton.  In all my research of the Robertson/Robinson family, the name changes back and forth quite often –  from census records, marriage records, or birth/death records, the name is never quite the same.  Anyway, Melvina’s father died when she was about 3 years old and her mother remarried to a local widower, L. Julius Spivey.  This widower was actually a cousin to her husband and they probably knew each other when they lived in Washington Co., TN.  In 1867, she marries John Ward Kelley.  Both of them were raised in Sexton’s Creek, Clay Co., KY and their families probably emigrated about the same time from Washington Co., TN.  Clay Co., KY to this day is one of the poorest counties in KY and from what I have learned; Sexton’s Creek wasn’t too prosperous.  Within the first 10 years of her marriage, Melvina had 7 children and by the time they decided to leave KY in 1885 they had 11 children.  They settled in Chautauqua Co., KS and started a new life.  John Ward Kelley had family in the area so it was a logical place for them to go after leaving KY and there was land to be had in the area for a new start.  By late 1890, Melvina was pregnant with her 14th child and on 21 Dec 1890 – she and the child (a daughter) died during childbirth.  She left behind 13 children with 10 still living at home. (Including my great grandmother Sarah Kelley Tanahill who married John Lyons Tannahill)

During the past 15 years or so, I have corresponded with many descendants of Melvina Robertson and John Ward Kelley.  One of the most interesting things that I have learned about her is that she was said to have something called “Wolf’s Bite.”  Today, we would call it Lupus.  I don’t know how she was diagnosed – I suspect it was the rash that is common with the disease. I have talked to many of her descendants and have found a common theme in many of them with health problems.  Many have auto immune diseases.  Diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, Diabetes and many others are considered to be auto immune diseases.  I know of two close cousins who have Multiple Sclerosis – my mother had Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Diabetes…and several distant cousins have Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis.  Within the descendants of Melvina Robertson – I know of at least 10 who have at least one of these diseases.  I asked my doctor about it – whether there was a genetic component to a disease like Lupus.  He said that he didn’t know of one – but there is certainly one with Diabetes and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
As genealogists, I think that it is an interesting and important to look at diseases or tendencies that run in families.  Just as we can see resemblances in photographs that follow through generations, we should pay attention to health patterns as well.  Who knows what future health professionals will discover about genetic tendencies with diseases…it seems something new is coming out all of the time.  Perhaps we should note these diseases within our genealogy files for future reference.


  1. Fantastic post! As a mother of one, I can't imagine 14! Medical genealogy is something I try to keep track of, too

  2. Even worse - can you imagine making clothes, meals, etc. My great grandmother used to make 10 loaves of bread 3 times a week for 10 children and only half of them were usually home. It really boggles the mind.