I’m a lover of genealogy and history….but didn’t expect to learn this sort of history

As a lover of genealogy, I also feel it makes sense that I am a also a lover of history.  However, there are some history questions I never thought I’d be asking in my genealogy research like….When did blood pressure medication as it is today come into existence?

One of the many documents when doing genealogy that one tends to get familiar with are Death Certificates.  Obviously, throughout the world’s history, there have been many causes of death that range anywhere from “old age” to Plague and epidemics.  But lately I have taken interest in a condition that today we may think of as just regular health maintenance….I’m talking about Hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure).

Today, many people manage High Blood Pressure daily with medication but it wasn’t always so.  While working on a recent project, after obtaining death certificates, I came across a man dying at the age of 34 in 1914 from “renal failure” and then subsequently his daughter dying at the age of 57 in 1966 from “Cardiac arrest due to coronary heart disease and Athrosclerosis, generalized”.  As well as “History of carotid surgery and Hypertensive Cardiovascular renal disease” amongst other issues.  I’m not a physician…So what does this all mean?

Um....I'm not a doctor...what does this all mean?

Um….I’m not a doctor…what does this all mean?

One of the important things someone might want to find out when researching their family is the family’s health history.  How did my Mother, Father, and Grandparents pass away?  And how will that affect me or my children.  So my question in regards to the project above was: The Father died of “renal failure” in 1914….I know that means “kidney failure” but is that hereditary?    In trying to find my answers I had to find out about the history of Hypertension and blood pressure medications.  Thankfully the internet is a wealth of information.

In 1928, the term “malignant hypertension” was created by physicians from the Mayo Clinic to describe a syndrome of very high blood pressure, severe retinopathy and adequate kidney function which usually resulted in death within a year from strokes, heart failure or kidney failure. There were prominent people with severe hypertension in the 1920s and 1930s – so it was a condition that was recognized. But although people recognized that malignant or severe hypertension wasn’t good, they didn’t know for certain of the risks of a more elevated blood pressure nor the benefits of treatment.

Before the effective use of drugs for treatment, there were a few treatment possibilities but all with numerous side effects – including blood letting with the use of leeches. The first chemical for hypertension, sodium thiocyanate, was used in 1900 but had many side effects and was unpopular.  Several other chemical treatments were developed after World War II.  There was a major breakthrough with the discovery of the first easily-tolerated oral medication. The first was chlorothiazide which became available in 1958.   Soon more drugs became available to treat hypertension and beta blockers were developed in the early 1960s.   The results of studies prompted public health campaigns to increase public awareness of hypertension and promoted the measurement and treatment of high blood pressure. These measures appear to have contributed at least in part to the observed 50% fall in stroke and ischemic heart disease between 1972 and 1994.

Now let’s get back to my recent genealogy project.  In 1914, even if high blood pressure was diagnosed, there wouldn’t have been any medications available to treat it effectively.  That probably resulted in the man dying from “renal failure” at the age of 34.  Obviously, renal failure isn’t hereditary but high blood pressure is.  The American Heart Association lists these risk factors for high blood pressure:  Family History, advanced age, gender-related risk patterns, lack of physical activity, poor diet (especially one that contains too much salt), overweight and obesity, and drinking too much alcohol.  Possible contributing factors include stress, smoking and second-hand smoke, and sleep apnea.  With the high blood pressure in her family history, it makes sense that the daughter might possibly have the same issues as her Father.  Unfortunately even at that time in 1966, the medications still were not at the availability and use that they are today.

As you can see, finding out one’s family’s health history can be an important discovery that gives someone possible health conditions to watch out for.  Thankfully we live in a time when breakthroughs in medicine have enabled us to live longer and healthier lives than our ancestors.  And although high blood pressure may run in the family, we have the ability to take medication that our ancestors did not have in the hopes of sparing ourselves from the unfortunate possible health risks or even death caused by Hypertension.  Who would’ve thought initially when doing genealogy research and thinking of family history that it would also include the history of various illnesses and medicine?

Many times I often think it would be nice to live in other time periods….like during the Victorian time period or the roaring 1920’s.  But this is one of the times when in thinking of the history of medicine and a family history of Hypertension…I think I’m pretty happy to be right here in 2015 and beyond.



Keith NM, Wagener HP, Kernohan JW (1928). “The syndrome of malignant hypertension”. Arch. Intern. Med. 41 (2): 141–188. doi:10.1001/archinte.1928.00130140003001

Dustan HP, Roccella EJ, Garrison HH (September 1996). “Controlling hypertension. A research success story”. Arch. Intern. Med. 156 (17): 1926–35. doi:10.1001/archinte.156.17.1926

The American Heart Association


About Kerry Coombs

Genealogy and Family History Research in South Western Pennsylvania, specializing in Beaver, Lawrence, Washington, and Allegheny Counties
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