Blog Post

The history in your DNA

By Barbara Sherf

Last year, Anne Marie Townsend* decided to do a DNA test just for fun, and it opened up a chapter of family secrets she never anticipated.

After talking with a co-worker who had done a DNA test through Ancestry.com, Townsend was intrigued. So she decided to confirm her Irish heritage by sending a sample of her saliva in a tube to the company. While the test did indeed confirm her Irish roots, it also revealed something deeper. Townsend was contacted by a woman who was listed as “close family to first cousin” on the Ancestry.com website. That’s when she started sleuthing.

She chatted with her older brother and sister. All three siblings remembered a time growing up in the Logan section of Philadelphia when their mother was sent away for months because she was having a nervous breakdown – or so they were told.

Townsend’s mother and father are both deceased, so the siblings questioned their aunt. They suspected their mother had actually had gone away to have a child who was not conceived by their father. Shockingly, their suspicions were confirmed.

“This half-sister lives in Bucks County and does have a resemblance to my mother,” Townsend said. “She has not told her grown children yet, so we have not met her, but have corresponded by email. I now feel sad for my mother and can’t imagine how extremely difficult it must have been on her to keep this secret.”

Uncovering salacious family history through genealogy research is fairly common. Mary Lee Keane, who teaches genealogy classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Temple University and the Northwest Village Network, was not surprised to hear the story.

During a recent lecture at the Chestnut Hill Library, Keane shared what she has learned about DNA testing. She sent away for her own DNA reports from five testing services and received very different results.

“There are complex algorithms they use, but they don’t take into account how people moved around and also how borders had changed throughout history,” Keane said, noting that while companies are trying to get the science right, there are continuing new developments in DNA testing. “I took five tests in part because I knew the results would be different, and I hoped that in aggregate they would give me an accurate picture, which they did.”

Linda Maslin, of Blue Bell, knows this all too well. Maslin took a test through the DNA testing company 23andMe.com five years ago. Surprisingly to her, the results revealed very little of her Italian heritage. The company recently revised her results based on its updated algorithm, which is the result of more people having been tested.

“After the first test, I just simply discounted DNA testing because we had oral history in our family noting our Northern Italian heritage,” Maslin said. “The follow-up test did hit the mark, but really I paid for something I already knew.”

There is an important lesson to be gleaned from these experiences. “If you have older relatives, talk to them now because you don’t know if they will be here tomorrow,” Keane said.

She shared some surprising statistics on how widespread DNA testing has become.

According to a report published in MIT Technology Review, more than 26 million people have done some sort of DNA testing. 2019 was a record year for sales in the industry. Over the next two years, it is estimated that more than 100 million people will have been tested.

All of the testing raises not only paternity issues, but also concerns regarding the use of DNA information within the medical and insurance communities.

“I can see one thing that will happen down the road and that is genomic testing will become the norm,” Keane said. “The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 was passed so that companies with 15 or more employees cannot discriminate against you based on your genetic information, but what if you work for a smaller business? Once this information is out there, there is no good way to get it back.”

Keane said in the future an individual may be able to do DNA testing of an ancestor if they have an envelope or stamp that person licked. She noted that costs can range from $55 to $99 for a basic test. More intensive gene testing can cost $199 or more. Some companies are now offering VIP services with a quick turnaround and provide experts to talk to about the results, which can be confusing and unexpected.

In the case of Townesend, her half-sister wants to pick the right place and time to tell her grown children, but is open to meeting her half-siblings. “We all want to meet her when the time is right and not a minute sooner,” Townsend said. “It has to be on her terms.”

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Author and speaker Barbara Sherf captures the stories of businesses and individuals.

*Last name has been changed