by Dae Powell

Genograms and the Fifth Element of Genealogy—Relationships!

The other four? Names, Dates, Places and Events.

Have you ever wondered why your family does the things that it does? Ever wonder why certain people in your family are alike? Do you ever wish you could change a family pattern, but have no idea how to start? Genograms may help!

Let's examine the following topics:

Host GFS Kate related this tale:

"My mother always cut the tail off the chicken . . . because my step-dad didn't want to see it on the table. My brother insisted his wife do it because 'that's the way mom did it' . . . and he didn't know the reason! When Barb, my sister-in-law, asked me about it, I thought I'd die laughing . . . a tradition . . . just because of Mel's not wanting to look at the portion of the chicken that went over the fence last. We had to do that with any kind of fowl that went on Mel's table."

We don't always know the underlying reason for the way things are and have been, do we? Here is a method that may help your analysis of your family and some of the things that make it the special way it is. Genograms.

What Is a Genogram?

A genogram (pronounced: jen-uh-gram) chart is a method of graphically describing the relationships between individuals. Primarily used by mental health experts, genogram diagrams can help identify positive and negative influences surrounding an individual and finding patterns in the family system.

Genograms can also be used to illustrate medical history. The purpose of diagramming your medical history is to learn what genetic traits may have been passed from one generation to the next. This provides a view of your own medical history that's easier to understand than the doctor's forms.

"Genealogists are interested in various facets of the family. When the information is portrayed graphically, as in the genogram, he/she can see traits and patterns that have evolved over generations." — Norma Chudleigh, Ph.D., Family History Consultant

The differences between a pedigree chart and a genogram chart are primarily their intentions. The pedigree shows the lineage and needs a family group sheet to demonstrate sibling relationships. Genograms combine the two and allow a clearer view of relationships and patterns.

Patterns?  What patterns? How about naming conventions, medical conditions, marriage partner age differences/preferences, longevity, and vocations just to name a few.

Genogram Chart

Gathering the Data
How do you chart your family medical history? First, gather the information.  This is best done through interviews. It is more time consuming than asking all of your relatives to fill out a form, but you're more likely to get all the answers this way.

Forms bother people in a way that a nice lunch or afternoon chat does not. Even so, to organize your interviews, you may want to create an interview form so you won't miss any important information.

Expect to find out new things, some surprising and some unpleasant. Just roll with it and refrain from judgment. Make notes or record the interview (but ask permission to record). Also, ask the people you interview about those who have already died. Many times they know something you'd hadn't learned elsewhere.

Write down each person's name, birth date, and (if deceased) death date and cause of death. Calculate the person's age when they died and record it. This will help later if you want to look at average age.

Where can you obtain "cause of death?"

You can also include their level of education (high school graduate, or not; college, etc.) and occupation or occupations.  Some jobs can have a significant impact on a person's health; think of the difference between a coal miner and an accountant.  Did the person serve in the military? If he or she served during a war they were probably exposed to less than ideal medical conditions.  Viet Nam veterans, for example, have a higher probability of Hepatitis C.

With a medical history you should look at the siblings of your ancestor, too.  A genetic condition, such as Huntington's, may not show itself in your direct line but it could appear in your uncle's or great-aunt's lines.  Be sure you list the children in birth order (top to bottom or left to right), including miscarriages, infant deaths, etc.

Document the person's marital history — did Auntie Bea have children by different husbands?  If so, you need to realize which of her children are affected by your common genes.  Include the marriage and, if applicable, the date of divorce.  Then add any medical information you can learn.

Look for musical talents, chronic illness, smoking, athletic abilities, eating disorders, depression or other mental health problems. 

Things to look for include:
Alcoholism or drug abuse  Diabetes Hypertension
Allergies Down's syndrome Hepatitis
Arteriosclerosis Dwarfism Multiple sclerosis
Arthritis Emphysema Muscular dystrophy 
Asthma Epilepsy Sickle-cell anemia
Cancer (any kind) Heart disease Stroke
Cataracts Hemophilia Tay-Sachs
Cystic Fibrosis  Huntington's disease  Tuberculosis

just to name a few.   You can use the medical dictionary on AOL to help with terms when reading death certificates or listening to your relatives. 
Keyword: Dictionary > Other Dictionaries > Dictionary (M-W: Medical)

Another medical dictionary can also be found at
Look at the cause of death and any contributing factors.

Interpreting the Data

Don't get too focused on specific problems of one or two family members.  The important parts of a genogram are trends and probabilities.  Did all of your father's people die of heart disease?  When was the average onset?  Is there a common thread there?  What's the likelihood that a problem was passed to the next generation?

Creating a Chart

First, decide whose medical history you want to diagram.  Each medical history genogram is usually limited to three generations.  This is for size limitations on the page, readability, and because the probability of a genetic trait occurring reduces with each successive generation.

Second, draw the individual on the page following the basic rules:

Genogram Symbols

Write down the person's medical vitals, etc.  Leave room to connect this person with others on the chart.  Draw the first generation near the bottom of the page since previous generations will appear above this generation. 

Draw each of the person's siblings on either side of him/her in order of birth from left to right.  Keep the shapes on the same level (or slightly below).  Write in the basic vitals for each sibling.

Third, draw the second generation (the parents of the group you just finished).  The father is drawn to the left of the mother.  A straight line is drawn between their shapes to indicate they are the ones who created the children shown already.  A vertical line is drawn from the marriage line to each of the children.

Fourth, draw the siblings of each parent.

Fifth, draw the grandparents above the parents.  Add in their siblings also.

Genograms render an additional dimension to Family Diagrams.  They aid in recognizing family patterns -- be they naming conventions, causes of death, chronic illnesses, personality traits, or sundry others.  In effect, Genograms help you SEE your family in a new light!

Some Genogram Software

Individual: $78.95 (V2.1 Win)
Demo: FREE upon request (V2.1 Win)
WonderWare, Inc.
2706 Randolph Rd.
Silver Spring, MD. 20902
Link:  WonderWare

Genograms for Personal Use
Link:  Genograms for Personal Use

Free.  Gold Edition: $24, and well worth it!
Link:  GenoPro


Blended Household

Family Sample
Family Sample

Here is another interesting link:

I've found a couple of minor errors on that diagram, but it is a good example to show Genogram formatting.
For more examples — including those of famous people — visit this site: Multi-Cultural


Finally, some of this presentation was taken from Genograms: Assessment & Intervention by Monica McGoldrick, Randy Gerson & Sylvia Shellenberger and Genograms: The New Tool for Exploring the Personality, Career, & Love Patterns You Inherit by Emily Marlin. If your interest expands enough to purchase a detailed explanation, these are highly recommended. But don't pay retail! Here's a website that can help:

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