The gall of that woman

Adding medical history to our searches

There was a time when I hated my grandmother.

Cursed her name.

Wished I could have been anyone else’s grandchild… but not hers.

gallbladderI never met the woman, mind you. Marie Margarethe (Nuckel) Geissler, my father’s mother, died before I was born.1

But her legacy to me still had me gritting my teeth.

When I wasn’t writhing in pain.

The first time I had an attack of what I later came to curse Marie for, I was 20 years old, at the lowest weight I’d ever achieve as an adult, and with no kids. So, the doctors of years ago assured me, it couldn’t be gallbladder disease. That, those same doctors assured me, was a disease of those who were fat, 40 years old and with four kids.2

Or, one of them mentioned in passing, an inherited condition.

But I wasn’t a genealogist then. And nobody had ever said anything about any family medical conditions.

Over the next decade, I had episode after episode of abdominal pain that left me writhing, often in tears. Because the attacks were shortlived, I could rarely get in to see a doctor before the pain stopped, and my hectic frenetic lifestyle led one doctor after another to suggest nerves — or anxiety — or an incipient ulcer, even.

So when an attack came on, I self-medicated. Cream soups. Ice cream. Anything like that, that would be soothing.

In other words, exactly the wrong thing to do when the culprit really is gallbladder disease.

Finally the day came when I had a dentist’s appointment, and the dental tech draped that heavy lead-lined apron over me… and it pressed against that dratted gallbladder. I remember promising whatever Powers That Be might have been paying attention that if I could get out of that office without embarrassing myself, I would go to another doctor and insist that it was time, finally, to get an answer.

One doctor’s visit and one x-ray later, and I was scheduled for a cholecystectomy — gallbladder removal. The night after I met with the surgeon, I had dinner with my father and stepmother.

“Gallbladder?” my father said. “My mother had that.”

Yes, indeed, my paternal grandmother had bequeathed to me a number of things:

• A tendency towards … um …there really isn’t a polite way of saying fat thighs…
• Thick German eyebrows.
• A love of strawberries.
• And … sigh … the inherited version of gallbladder disease.

And that was the moment when I really hated my grandmother.

Turns out I had at least one more ancestor to blame, and not even on my father’s side.

My great grandfather Jasper Robertson, my mother’s mother’s father, died in 1912 of an abscess of the liver “complicated with cholescistitis”3 — spelled correctly, that’s cholecystitis, or inflammation of the gallbladder.

Still, looking back on it from today’s perspective, the whole thing sure underscored why part of what we do in researching our family history should be researching our family medical history.

That’s abundantly clear for those with inherited genetic diseases like Parkinson’s Disease.

But it should be just as true for those of us with … sigh … gallbladder disease. Or heart disease. Or any of a hundred or more other things that we might be able to do something about if only the family history were known.

Something else to add to our reasonably exhaustive search.


Image: Adapted from Bruce Blaus via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

  1. Illinois Department of Public Health, death certificate no. 12011, Marie Geissler, 12 Jan 1947; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield.
  2. “In medical school, the ‘five F’s’ help doctors to remember the usual patient with gallbladder disease: ‘fair, fat, forty, fertile and female.’ Sexist as it sounds, it describes the group most frequently affected by gallbladder disease: overweight middle-aged white women with a history of several pregnancies.” Ronald Hoffman, “Gallbladder disease,” Intellligent Medicine ( : accessed 16 May 2014).
  3. Oklahoma State Board of Health, death certificate no. 3065, Jasper C. Robertson, 15 March 1912; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Oklahoma City.
Print Friendly
This entry was posted in My family. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The gall of that woman

  1. Mary says:

    Hi Judy

    When my Dad was diagnosed with terminal Pancreatic Cancer in March 2006, we a joined familial tumor registry. Part of joining was to look at all his family members and how they died or for those living, their current health, to see if there was a history of this cancer or related cancers. I had all the causes of death listed for his parents and grandparents, but then started getting going further for great-grandparents and aunts and uncles and now have done so for my mother’s side. While he is the only one that had this kind of cancer, it has become apparent that there are other related cancers in the family although a DNA test didn’t indicate anything blaringly hereditary. However, with this information, and the fact that I keep logging new things for living family members, it has become a really fabulous resource for all of us. While at first it felt kind of ghoulish, we have found this to be of great benefit. I have made major changes to my lifestyle and am proud of my current health status because I am armed with great information.


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Excellent use of family medical history, Mary, and good for you for the changes you’ve made! (I need to follow your example…)

  2. Shelley says:

    When I was diagnosed with heart disease the first thing I did was get into my files and checked the death certificates. I found more than I wanted to know. Wonder how I missed so many folks with it????

  3. I wasn’t looking for it, but I found a rather frightening pattern in my half-sister’s family. After I had obtained death certificates for four generations, I realized every man in those four generations save one had died of heart disease before the age of 60 — eleven men all together. The one man who had not died so young apparently had noticed that his father, brother, uncle, cousin, etc. had passed away so quickly and decided to retire early and take care of his health.

  4. Having a chronic medical condition diagnosed in my youth has me always looking for the medical history of my ancestors. Eventually, I’ll write a post about the causes of death that I’ve obtained from death certificates, obituaries and family stories. While such information won’t be definitive, some clues and patterns may appear. And tell me who can I blame!!

  5. Kenneth H. Ryesky says:

    My grandmother suffered with her allergies and arthritis until she was 97. I have inherited those allergies from her. And she had an uncle who had summered down the shore on Long Beach Island to get away from the pollen in the inland areas. And it turns out that her birthplace in the old country was a city that is still known for its mineral baths, and I recall a great-aunt (my grandmother’s older sister) telling a story of their father (my great-grandfather)running away to that city and his wife (my great-grandmother) following him there — or was it my g-g-grandparents?

    Perhaps some yet-undiscovered cousins of mine may have rheumatological health issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>