It Happened at Michigan — Family trees and the ‘striking incidence’ of cancer


On paper, they were known as “Family G.”

For years, U-M pathologist Aldred Scott Warthin studied the lives — and deaths — of an extended Ann Arbor family. He came to know them in 1895 through a local dressmaker, Pauline L. Gross, who had confided that she feared an early death because so many of her relatives had succumbed to cancer. Her immigrant grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins all had battled some form of cancer and lost.

A photo of Aldred S. Warthin
Aldred S. Warthin earned medical and doctoral degrees at U-M before joining the faculty in 1891. (Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

Warthin was intrigued.

Where the 21st century provides online family trees and quick DNA tests, Warthin operated when determining families’ medical histories was challenging. “Few individuals of the general run of the American population know anything about their family history except for the immediate members. By far the majority do not know the cause of death of their grandparents,” he wrote.

But with help from Gross, Warthin began documenting the incidence of cancer in her extended family. He learned that her grandfather had died of stomach cancer. Of his 48 descendants in the next two generations — his children and grandchildren — 17 had cancer. The most prevalent types were uterine and stomach. He studied three additional families in pursuit of what he called “cancer families.”

As the director of U-M’s Pathological Laboratory, Warthin had access to autopsy findings and medical specimens, including records from cancer surgeries.

A photo of a 1913 paper documenting cancer research
Warthin’s 1913 paper built on 18 years of researching what he called “cancer families.” (Photo courtesy of the Archives of Internal Medicine)

In 1913, he wrote a landmark paper sharing his findings. Cancer, he said, could be passed on from generation to generation.

“The incidence of cancer in these families is so striking that it can be interpreted as showing an inherited susceptibility to cancer,” he wrote. His work was one of the most documented histories of families with cancer.

Pauline Gross’s worries about an early death were realized in 1919 when she died at age 46. The cause was uterine cancer.

Warthin’s research became the foundation of what is known as Lynch Syndrome, the most common cause of hereditary colon cancer. By 2005, U-M researchers had identified 929 members of Family G. Cancers of the colon, rectum, and endometrium continued to be prevalent.


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