Conference helps dig up the past

Thursday, August 12, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:55 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct errors.]

When Linda Fisher speaks at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia this weekend, she’ll be mentioning consumption a lot. But Fisher won’t be hocking the latest fad diet, nor will she be denouncing 21st century excess. She’ll be referring to the outmoded medical term used on late 19th century death certificates to describe tuberculosis.

Fisher, a former chief medical officer for St. Louis County, will be teaching attendees of the 2004 Missouri State Genealogical Association Conference how to interpret death certificates from the late 19th century and early 20th century. The conference, which is held annually in a central Missouri location, is expected to draw almost 200 recreational and professional genealogists to a series of workshops and lectures.

David Sapp, who serves on the conference’s organizational committee, said one of the most important results of the conference is the exchange of information between people working on similar problems in their genealogical studies.

“Sharing information and tips is a great way to become a better genealogist,” he said. “The conference is geared to providing information for anybody. We try to accommodate a wide range of experience.”

Darrell Jackson, this year’s organizing committee chair, said most genealogists start out focusing on their own family trees.

“Most of the people who come to the conference have been interested in genealogy for some time, but most have just been working on their own families,” he said.

Jackson said genealogists can become certified through a number of national genealogy organizations, and must undergo a “rigorous” process to measure their genealogical expertise, including the mastery of techniques used in culling information.

Jackson said the Midwest is unique in the genealogical world because of its roots as an agricultural region.

“We have special sessions about how to research your ancestors if they were farmers,” Jackson said. “You don’t just trace ancestors — you want to know about them, about how they lived.”

In her workshop on death certificates, Fisher will teach attendees not only about medical terminology of the past, but also, although perhaps indirectly, about social mores. Fisher, who is currently editing a diary kept by a man during the St. Louis cholera epidemic of 1849, said many inaccuracies in the cause of death on certificates are due to social stigma surrounding opportunistic diseases.

“Syphilis could be called a number of different things,” Fisher said. “And some diagnoses from the 19th century don’t translate at all into modern medical terms.”

Besides Fisher, seven other expert genealogists will speak on a variety of topics throughout the weekend. Certified genealogist J. Mark Lowe will be the conference’s keynote speaker.

Jackson said the conference incorporates a variety of issues that will assist both recreational and professional genealogists in their studies, including geographical, historical, medical and logistical information. Jackson said that although many people get involved in genealogy out of a curiosity about their own heritage, genealogy is an important part of understanding the past.

“If we don’t know where we came from, we can’t know who we are,” he said. “Genealogy is history made personal.”

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