Faraway: Get Out of Your World
Oh, Mummy, Do Tell!
If mummies could talk, oh what stories they could tell - stories of espionage, intrigue, and scandal, the sort that make headlines no matter the century. However, what other stories could mummies tell? Tales of the dead may not always be so juicy, but could nevertheless contain information that is actually useful, even life-saving. Like how did they die? What life did they live? What lessons can they give? Oh, to talk with a mummy!
I had not heard of the occupation, paleopathologist, until I came across an interesting quote about the accumulation of knowledge by Arthur Aufderheide, 1922-2013, a noted paleopathologist and actual pioneer of the field, “All knowledge is connected to all other knowledge. The fun is in making the connections.”
Intrigued by the thought and in total agreement with his conclusion that pure fun results from connecting bodies of knowledge, I looked into his story.
When Professor Auferheide was 55 years old, he began to feel dissatisfied with his 25 year career as a hospital pathologist. He yearned for a challenge - something beyond the four walls of his lab. He had always loved archeology and anthropology. He wondered if he could somehow combine the two and come up with a new field to work in, one that could take him to worlds unknown and still use the knowledge that he had acquired heretofore. Why not study the pathways of disease in ancient bodies?
Professor Auferheide knew that when a patient dies, much information is left behind in the tissues and organs that can lead to discovering ways to prevent the same disease from overtaking the living. What could an ancient body reveal that could possibly help prevent certain diseases from tracking relentlessly through a population? Professor Auferheide decided to venture forth.
Here is an excerpt from his story as reported at the University of Minnesota where he kept a lab:
And as the 86-year-old professor prepares to retire from research and teaching at the end of the fall semester, he is trying to finish a few things—just a dozen or so projects that he put aside years ago and his third book on mummies.
“Dr. Aufderheide brings a degree of passion and energy to his research in paleopathology that is almost palpable and certainly enviable,” says Gary Davis, Ph.D., senior associate dean for the Medical School-Duluth Campus. “Very few faculty members will retire knowing that they helped to create the academic field of study in which they became an international star. Dr. Aufderheide is one of those few.”
“When patients die in the hospital, a legacy of medical information is available to us through the autopsy,” he says. “It occurred to me that maybe some of it—maybe just some of it—might still be there in mummies. And if so, I’d like to recover that information.”
How to find a mummy
As Aufderheide soon learned, only a minute fraction of 1 percent of human bodies end up as mummies. In some cultures, mummification results from packing bodies of the deceased with salts and painting them with a waterproofing agent to prevent rehydration. In extremely dry climates, a dead body can mummify spontaneously, or naturally, drying out before enzymes cause decay.
Not sure where to start his research, Aufderheide and his wife, Mary, flew to Bogota, Colombia, to see what they could find.
Mary had a knack, they discovered, for picking up foreign languages. And her people skills opened a lot of doors. “Fifty percent of the team consists of Mary,” her husband insists. “She made it all possible.”
Here is a link to photos of his work from the University of Minnesota.
Professor Auferheide’s research holds promise for discovering ways that modern disease travels. If we can accurately track diseases like Ebola, we can find practical ways to stop them from spreading.