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Weekly Tip: Is There a Doctor in the House? Researching the Physician in Your Family Tree

By Gena Philibert Ortega

When you know the occupations of your ancestors, it can be exciting to uncover documents that pertain to their working lives. If they had professional occupations, you are even more likely to find additional records—more so than if they were farmers or not employed at all.

So where do you start if you have physician ancestors? How do you find more information about their lives? The following provides some ideas for researching the doctors in your family tree.

Explore City Directories and Business Directories

City directories and business directories are like the telephone books of the past. (Printed telephone books are now increasingly becoming something from the past as well). City directories can provide a listing for a person that includes their occupation. Business directories may be a part of a city directory, or can be found separately, and list names and addresses of businesses by business type (in alphabetical order).

For an example of a business directory see the Boston Almanac and Business Directory (1878), available from Google Books. Pages 359-265 list physicians and their addresses in Boston.

City directories can be found online and in libraries and archives. For online directories, check out blogger Miriam Midkiff’s website, Online Historical Directories Website . Once you click on the locality you are interested in, you will see a listing of directories and where they are located online. To find directories located in brick and mortar repositories, consult City Directories of the United States . This website is indexed by locality and then year. City directories in the collections of the Library of Congress, Brigham Young University, the Family History Library, and public libraries are listed.

Check Out Manuscript Collections and Periodicals

In some cases, physicians may have left behind records that are now part of a manuscript collection. Search the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC)  by the locality of your ancestor. It’s possible to find items there such as diaries/journals, papers, or documents about local medical history.

PERSI (the Periodical Source Index) is available through Ancestry and Heritage Quest. A project of the Allen County Public Library, PERSI indexes historical and genealogical publications. You can conduct a keyword search for the locality your ancestor lived in, or search by the keyword “doctor” or “physician.”

To search PERSI using Ancestry.com, go to the Ancestry home page and click on the Search tab found at the top of the page. Click on the link “Search all Records” and scroll down the page. On the right hand side you will see a link for “Reference, Dictionaries and Almanacs.” Click on that link. You will then see a link for the Periodical Source Index on the right hand side of the Reference, Dictionaries and Almanacs page.

Professional Records

One place to look for biographical information for physicians is the National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine . According to their website, they are the largest medical library in the United States and are charged with preserving America’s medical history. This site includes the AMA’s Dead Physician’s Master Card File, Medical Schools Catalogs and Bulletins, and Archival and Manuscript Collections. The link to Printed Resources has a great bibliography for national directories, national, and specialized biographies that will provide additional resources for your research. I recommend that you use the link for the printer friendly version of this page and use it as a reference sheet. Just some of the books listed include:

American Men & Women of Science. New York: R.R. Bowker, c1989-.

Atkinson, William Biddle. The Physicians and Surgeons of the United States. C. Robson, Philadelphia, 1878.

Flint’s Medical and Surgical Directory of the United States and Canada. New York, 1897.

Gross, Samuel D. Lives of Eminent American Physicians and Surgeons of the Nineteenth Century. Lindsay & Blakiston, Philadelphia, 1861.

Hafner, Arthur W. Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929: A Genealogical Guide to over 149,000 Medical Practitioners Providing Brief Biographical Sketches drawn from the American Medical Association’s Deceased Physician Masterfile. Chicago: American Medical Asso., 1993.

Kaufman, Martin, Stuart Galishoff, and Todd Savitt. Dictionary of American Medical Biography. Greenwood, 1984.

The day I was searching on this site, I noticed that many of their links were down. However, it looks like that may be due to some online maintenance. You can search their card catalog here . If you have trouble, I would suggest you use the Contact Us link and ask a question about researching your ancestor.

More Resources

For additional resources, look at the Medical and Medicine category of Cyndi’s List .

For those with UK ancestors, you will want to read the article, Was Your Ancestor a Doctor? by Alex Glendinning. Genealogical guide, The Source includes information about researching doctors in the chapter Business, Institution and Organization Records by Kay Haviland French and Ann Carter Fleming. You can find this information starting on page 108.

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