Kathryn Rutherford Blog Header

Kathryn Rutherford Blog Header

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Medical History in Your Family Album


“All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget."
 John Berger-English Painter, b.1926

    Anyone familiar with my fine art paintings knows of the storytelling portraits I create called "Spirit Paintings".
    One of these original oil paintings, created in 2009, was to contain a portrait of myself dreamily gazing out a window toward the blue waters of Lake Erie where I grew up. Ever watchful within the scene would be the ghostly apparitions of my Great Grandparents.  As one of the last tall ship captain's on the Great Lakes, one of Great Grandfather's Ships, the Maple Leaf, would appear to sail in the distance.   (You may view this work at:  http://www.heirloomartstudio.com/spiritpaintings.html)
    I bring up this particular work of art because little did I know at the time of laying out the composition for this painting that an historical revelation would take place.  All my years of restoring and duplicating photographs, all my years of training to know photographic processes and memorize production dates, to know the ins and outs of photographic details had not prepared me for what I was about to learn next about the history of photography. 
    Upon completing my painting, "Oh, To Be Sailing", I emailed my friend Henrietta photographs of both the final painting and the individual photographs that were the subjects of the painting.  I've spoken about Henri before as my genealogical partner but not mentioned that Henri's career expertise is as a highly trained Nurse and Administrator.   It is not uncommon for me to direct the odd medical query to my friend, but I have now learned that her expertise in the medical field has opened a new aspect of photographic research and data for both myself and my clients.  The family album has become a visual record of one's family medical history!!
    Upon receiving the emailed photographs of my newest painting and ancestors Henri immediately emailed me back and asked the following question, "What do you know about your Great Grandmother's medical history?"
    The only answer I could give at the time was that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, had a breast removed at Harper Hospital in Detroit, Michigan and died one month from the day of the operation on May 20, 1923 at the age of 48.      Through letters, autographs, photographs, data, and historical accounts I knew everything about Anna Barbara's birth in Switzerland, her arrival in Canada, her love for the stern, but handsome, ship Captain Frank, but knew only her cause of death and nothing else about the medical history of this lovely woman who was long since gone.  All my years of research and I had never thought to ask medical questions about my family.
    Henri referred to one of the research photographs and proceeded to direct my attention to the hand and fingers of my beloved ancestor.  She asked if I noticed the triangular and enlarged shape of her knuckles and the misshapen form of her fingers.  Having just completed my painting, I admitted that this malformation had immediately struck me as inconsistent with my life drawing training, but as I was painting a vision of my ancestors and not a photographic depiction I had merely questioned the odd anatomy and pushed the thought to the back of my mind.
    Henri continued to explain that this misshapen hand showed distinct symptoms and traits of Rheumatoid Arthritis. 
    "This woman," Henri stated emphatically "must have experienced a great deal of daily pain." 
    Good grief!  There was a long pause at which time I realized it was time to breath.  I had so many photographs of my Great Grandmother, so many hand written notes including a love note to her husband shortly after they met and all of her cook books (she was the housekeeper and cook of a private club on Pelee Island in Lake Erie) that I had grown up feeling as if I had known Anna Barbara in real time.  Her breast cancer pained me, but learning of her own daily pain with this crippling disease broke my heart.
    Anna Barbara was only twenty-six in the photograph I had used for the subject of my painting.  How terrible to learn how painful her daily routine must have been even at that young age.
    Henri and I discussed the aspects and importance of physical symptoms appearing in the photographs of the family album and what this would mean to my customers when added to my other expertise in dating and identifying historical photographs.  I thanked her for this insight and set out on a mission to contact my immediate family with this information. 
    Phone calls and emails went out to close and distant family relations to inquire about the medical aspects of what I had just been given as well as any other pertinent information I could gather. 
    Yes, my eighty-six year old father did remember that his paternal Grandmother's side of the family did suffer from extreme arthritis. 
    My ninety-seven year old Great Aunt is alive and well and as sharp of mind than most of those half her age.  She has always been just Aunt Frances to me and as an active part of my life rarely brings to mind the fact that she is actually one generation removed from me and the daughter of our Great Grandmother in question.  It stood to reason that although Aunt Frances was only ten years old at the time of her mother's death surely she would remember her physical condition.  I planned a visit home to Canada to meet with her to ask questions and study photographs.
    In the meantime, I headed into the photographic darkroom with a collection of photographs and eighty year old negatives that I had, until this time, not yet restored or had time to print. There is time to do customer work, but never enough hours in a day to follow the personal pursuits of my own.
    A badly faded photograph subjected to ultraviolet light and special darkroom techniques brought back the intense image of my Grandfather, Great Grandmother and Great Great Grandmother.  Look at the hands on Anna Schmid shown above.  Regally sits the mother of my painting's subject with crippled hands and the distinct enlarged knuckles Henri had just pointed out as important to my genetic history.
    My visit with Aunt Frances not only confirmed everything that was appearing before me, but she additionally informed me that Anna Barbara's older sister was badly crippled by arthritis. Her feet were contorted inward so badly they hung diagonally making it difficult for her to walk. 
    It seems, as a young teenager, my Grandfather (the child in the photograph above and Aunt Frances' older brother) took sections of old tires and layered them diagonally to the bottoms of Aunt Lena's shoes so that although her feet were diagonal, the soles of her shoes walked the ground flat making it possible for her to live a full and long life well into old age. 
    My father has arthritis in his shoulders, but as it is not Rheumatoid Arthritis, says it is just a little hindrance to enjoying another day at his age.
    As an artist I am aware of every ache and pain that arises in my body, but greatly relieved to have it confirmed that most of my ailments are from spending so many hours at the easel or drawing on the computer tablet without taking the necessary breaks my physician warns are necessary.  My genetic family history has been noted but, given the pain and agony I have since learned comes with RA, I arise thankful each morning that an ordinary aspirin will conquer any aches and pains that currently plague my body.
    As an additional thought on this subject I would like to add one last example to stress the importance of searching your family photographs.  While printing that batch of negatives I mentioned I was astonished to find forgotten images of people attending a family wedding.  I recognized only half of the faces peering out at me and who was the jovial looking man in the wheelchair with.....only one leg? 
    After conferring with my father, I learned that this well dressed figure was none other than Uncle Alphonso Allan or "Uncle Tuggy" as I had grown up to know him.  He passed away just before I was born and I had only seen photographs of him as a young man.  This one-legged gentleman was an ancestor? 
    It was no secret that diabetes ran rampant in my mother's family, but imagine my utter shock when I learned it was there, in my father's side of the family in photographic record before my eyes.  Uncle Tuggy suffered so badly with poor circulation, swelling and painful leg disorders as a result of his diabetes that he (and I quote!) told the Doctors to, "Take the damn leg off".   Yikes!   No one bothered to tell me this WHY???  
    So, there you have it.  The old adage rings true one again, YOU DON'T KNOW IF YOU DON'T ASK.  More importantly, you might SEE if you take a look.  Good or bad, you never know what medical history you might see when you get out the family photo album.

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