Genealogy Meets Genetics

Jul 1, 2002

Northern Ohio Live Magazine, July 2002

by Anton Zuiker

The fact that something called DNA is passed from one generation to another may not have been known to that armchair scientist-cum-renaissance man Thomas Jefferson, but it would loom large for his descendants and those of his slave woman Sally Hemmings. Indeed, DNA testing is now being used almost routinely to prove – or disprove – paternity. And, if an historic collaboration now under way between two institutions here proves fruitful, DNA could become an exciting new tool in one of northeast Ohioans� favorite pastimes: tracing family trees.

The idea originated with Duncan Neuheiser, a professor of health management at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Having made numerous trips to Iceland – where a national genetic data bank is being assembled for purposes of tracking hereditary dispositions to certain illnesses – and having once met a woman tracing the pattern of alcoholism in her extended family, he found himself wondering one day what the value might be of combining medical records and DNA samples with genealogy. His colleague, Robert Elston, a genetic epidemiologist, agreed a lot could be learned.

So Neuhauser approached John Grabowski, a CWRU professor of applied history, who is also director of research at the Western Reserve Historical Society, and this past March, some 50 family historians gathered at the WRHS to explore the implications of DNA for genealogy. That discussion, led by a multidisciplinary panel of experts recruited by Neuhauser and Grabowski, was also the first step toward deciding whether the historical society, already a premier repository of documents useful to genealogists, should establish a new kind of data bank.

“I was dragged into the 20th Century,” admits Richard Fetzer, the newly installed president of the Society�s Genealogical Committee and a well-traveled family historian. Self-described as an “old-time researcher who likes books and documents,” Fetzer says he recently began using the Internet for genealogical research and, in the process, noticed that many family history web sites are interested in DNA samples.

But what made a believer out of him was the venerable and conservative Mayflower Society. “They�re full-tilt into this,” he says, noting that they are using DNA samples from American descendants of the Mayflower passengers (among whom Fetzer is included) to try to pinpoint the counties in England where those first immigrants came from. And if it turns out your DNA didn�t make the trip on the famous ship after all? Well, you won�t be asked to turn in your membership card to that exclusive club, but it ends with you.

Similarly, a man who had been told all his life that he was a descendant of the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone successfully used genetic testing (in which his DNA was compared with that of Boone�s known descendants) to confirm that he was indeed related to old Dan�l.

Fetzer finds less compelling, however, the idea of creating a database at WRHS for the use of future family historians. “How valuable it will be in the future, I have questions about,” he says. Would a family historian, after hunting down documentary proof, Fetzer wonders, feel the need of a scientific second opinion? As a matter of fact, he suggests, a little impishly, future family tree huggers who go the DNA route may get some big surprises, because life in the 19th Century was just like today.” Your real grandfather might turn out to be the guy who lived next door to the man you thought was the father of your father. Fetzer is not alone in warning amateur genealogists to think twice before jumping into the gene pool.

Others, including John Grabowski, see DNA as just another potentially useful tool. Genetic testing, he notes, is already being done on a daily basis. The Army collects blood samples from all its soldiers, the FBI from felons, funeral directors from their corpses. Ohio and most other states require a simple genetic test of all newborns to see if they are susceptible to Phenylketonuria, a cause of brain damage and mental retardation.

Medical records are routinely collected as a part of the Society�s genealogical database, says Mary Lou Bregitzer, who preceded Fetzer as genealogical committee president. One of the things people want to know is their family�s medical history. Bregitzer, who has researched four family lines, advocates digging up death records, which often state not just what a person died of but other conditions from which he or she had been suffering. Suicides, she notes, are often listed as “untimely deaths.”

Will a genetic database lead historians of the future to be less euphemistic about causes of death? “Absolutely,” says Bregitzer – much as, in just the last generation, we�ve become more open to discussing such once-taboo subjects as divorce, incest and sex outside marriage.

It�s fairly simple to collect a sample of someone�s DNA: A strand of hair, a swab of cells from the inside cheek, or a drop of blood all contain your DNA. Sarah Buxbaum, a genetic and molecular epidemiologist currently doing her post-doc at CWRU, says numerous Web sites are already peddling home DNA sampling and storage kits for as little as $20. (Of course the testing itself, which must be done by experts with high-tech equipment, is a good deal pricier.) But Jessica Berg, a CWRU law professor and bioethicist, says issues of informed consent and confidentiality, not to mention access, will need to be addressed if the historical society decides to assemble its own genetic data bank. Grabowski says the Society, regarded as the preeminent family history center in the Eastern U.S, would assure families that this highly personal information would be used only for genealogical purposes; a pair of law students at CWRU are currently exploring the legal issues.

Since the interest of future generations presumably would be be interested primarily in your paternity, a WRHS-CWRU data bank would most likely consist of genotyping, which looks for chemical markers on any of the more than 40,000 genes in your DNA. That�s where CWRU�s science expertise comes in. Another use to which larger genetic databases would probably be put, says Buxbaum, would be locating other branches of your family tree. (Genealogy is said to be the fastest growing hobby in the U.S. One recent poll found that 60 percent of Americans are interested in tracing their family roots, up from 45 percent in 1995.)

Genealogy committees throughout Cuyahoga County are working together for the first time, as you read this, to create a comprehensive index of the 1930 Census of the county – purchased by the historical society as part of the just-released 1930 U.S. Census – which includes handwritten records of some 1.3 million people. When this index is finished in about a year, it will be made public via the Rootsweb Web site (, one of a number of large clearinghouses of genealogy information on the Web.

As that effort continues, Grabowski and Neuhauser will be seeking funding to add information of perhaps even more value to the sons and daughters of our sons and daughters: the record of family connections each of us carries inside him or her, like, well, the rings of a tree.

Anton Zuiker

© 2000 Zuiker Chronicles Publishing, LLC