Provenance and the Pedigree
Victor McKusick's Fieldwork with the
Old Order Amish
M. Susan Lindee
Provenance is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as the record of the “ultimate derivation and passage of an item through its various owners. ” The term is most commonly used to describe the history or pedigree of a painting—who has owned it, its value at various stages—but it also has a meaning in silviculture, in which it refers explicitly to genetic stock. Provenance, for forestry professionals, is the record of where a seed was taken and of the character of the “mother trees. ” In this essay I explore provenance in both senses, as a textual record of the origins of a given object (in this case a blood or tissue sample) and as a record of genetic stock. I focus on fieldwork, which creates a record of origins that can certify the authenticity and reliability of a particular pedigree, which then can acquire status as a form of scientific evidence.
In the 1950s and 1960s, human geneticists undertook wide-ranging field studies of human populations around the globe. They tracked visible anomalies, such as Ellis-van Creveld syndrome in the Pennsylvania Amish and albinism in the Hopi of Arizona. They also tracked geographical anomalies, such as the presence in the Pacific Rim of small populations that appeared to be African. Identifying suitable populations, assessing their genetic status, learning their reproductive histories, and extracting from them blood, tissue, and pedigrees were important activities in postwar human genetics.
The medical geneticist Victor McKusick, of Johns Hopkins University, was among the most prominent practitioners of this genetic fieldwork in the 1960s. This essay focuses on McKusick's field practices in the early 1960s with the Old Order Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was tracking a rare form of hereditary disease, Ellis-van Creveld syndrome, a dwarfing condition, and within a few years he had identified as many cases of this syndrome in the Pennsylvania Amish alone as had previously been reported in the entire medical literature (McKusick 1978: 104).