The History of Paleopathology

After an early 19th-century period focusing on the examination of native American skulls, interest shifted to evidence of disease, dominated by activities at the Smithsonian Institution, the Army Medical Museum, and the Peabody Museum at Harvard. In Europe a controversy arose when Rudolf Virchow, the German pathologist, anthropologist, and politician questioned the authenticity of the Neander Valley specimen, suggesting that the Neanderthal remains were those of an abnormal modern man suffering from rickets or syphilis.

The next period, from 1900 to 1970, began with the Smithsonian appointment of Ales Hrdlicka. Describing lesions that he called "symmetrical osteoporosis," he noted that they were probably representative of a systemic disorder. He built one of the world's great collections and contributed to the training of many anthropologists. Flinders Petrie examined prehistoric Egyptian bones by X-ray in 1897, but the technique was little used until the work of Roy Moodie in the 1930s, and is only now beginning to be fully utilized.

The first of the truly modern paleopathologists was Sir Marc Armand Ruffer. Ruffer was an English experimental pathologist and bacteriologist of some note when an illness forced him to Egypt for recuperation. He developed the rehydration technique that is still in use for preparing microscopic sections of mummies and made a number of important diagnostic contributions before being lost at sea in World War I (Ruffer, 1921).

The first full-length book on paleopathology was written by Roy L. Moodie (1923), an American anatomist. His book covers humans, lower vertebrates, plants, etc. and contains many errors, mostly related to the theories of the early 20th century. Moodie also edited Ruffer's collected papers and published other books and papers in the field.

Paleopathology was revitalized in the 1970s by the activities of three groups. The Paleopathology Association was founded in Detroit by Aidan and Eve Cockburn and 12 charter members. The association publishes a quarterly newsletter and has studied a number of mummies. These studies have gone far toward improving the difficulties that were experienced in interpreting lesions in the past, and a wide variety of new techniques have come into play. These include more sophisticated radiographic studies such as computed tomographic scanning, electron and scanning electron microscopy, fluorescent antibody and other serologic techniques, neutron activation analysis, and other chemical and microbiological techniques.

A second group, headed by Marvin Allison and Enrique Gerszten at the Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, has conducted an extensive survey of Peruvian and Chilean mummies.

A seminar in paleopathology was held at the Smithsonian Institution from 1971 to 1974. This full-length course provided a continuing major impetus in paleopathology. As world-wide interest in the field increases, with much research being conducted in Europe, South America, and Australia, the number of journals accepting paleopathology articles also is increasing, as summarized by the Bibliography of Paleopathology published by the San Diego Museum of Man (Tyson, 1997).

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