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20 August 2010

PHYSICAL GENEALOGY

     We are becoming accustomed to hearing about genealogical discoveries made through the miracles of DNA analysis. But a recent genealogical breakthrough was made by a much older means--noticing a family dental trait.
      In 1832, fifty seven recent Irish immigrants died while working on a track of railroad, known as Duffy's Cut, outside of Philadelphia. An excavation of the bodies is ongoing. Recent discoveries have revealed that some of the men did not die of cholera, but of blows to the head. Others may have been shot. An excellent article by Lori Lander Murphy, describing the history and discoveries at Duffy's cut,  can be found via the link below.
         One skull was found to have a missing front molar (from birth). Members of the Ruddy family in Co. Donegal, hearing about the research being done in Pennsylvania, alerted the researchers that many members of their family has a genetic quirk--a missing front molar! So, the body of young John Ruddy was the first to be identified and matched with his Irish family.
     The story makes me wonder how many of us consider physical and anatomical characteristics in our family history research? Have you examined causes of death on death records to see if certain conditions might be genetically linked or might run in a family? Very often, military records note physical chararcteristics and abnormalities. Don't skip over these details when looking for genealogical clues.
      Noticing small physical details can be helpful in identifying photographs, also, to determine if a person in a photo might be family. Some of the details can be as noticeable as a large gap between the front teeth, or a strong, square jaw. Others can be more subtle. I have been able to identify a couple of photographs from the 1800's as the same ancestor because of an almost imperceptable bump in his left arlobe.

     Even if you don't have a distinguishing physical family trait, don't forget to document in your records any physical descriptions you can obtain. These descriptions can prove important. For example, I have been able to differentiate two men with the same name, in British military records, based on the physical description of one of the men in his hospital records.
     When you ask relatives what they remember about their ancestors, don't forget to ask for a physical description. Was Grandpa tall? What were Granny's facial features? Which ancestor gave me my blue eyes?
     Don't forget to read Lori's fascinating article on Duffy's Cut at IrishPhiladelphia.com: