Disease hunters, mummies, and vampires…

I thought I’d talk a bit about mummies and vampires—and the actual science behind them, of course.

The science behind the cultural and historical concepts of mummies and vampires actually once provided for some very popular public educational programs at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington (now closed).

One topic that lent itself well to the museum was a very small and specialized area of anthropology and archaeology called paleopathology—or researching diseases in ancient populations.

This field does not appeal to many ivory-tower academics because it involves getting your hands dirty. And it’s not just of academic interest because finding out what diseases were common (or not) during earlier eras of history provides important insights for modern health problems.

For example, some of my research published in the journal Human Pathology 20 years ago showed that the cancers that are common today were extremely rare or non-existent among prehistoric and ancient human populations. So, like many other current health problems, cancer appears to be a disease of modern times.

So, how can we even tell what kinds of diseases were present in ancient times?

Mummies are a good source of information as it is possible to do autopsy-type examinations on the remains which have been preserved. And mummies are quite abundant not only in Egypt but all around the world where the climate permits.

Even more abundant are skeletal remains and fossils. Although the soft tissues are gone, many diseases leave traces on the bone.

One of the first times I heard about this topic was while a medical student at a presentation by the Smithsonian Institution. It was held at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and was called “Captured in Bone.” The presentation featured the excavations at Bab-edh-Dhra on the Dead Sea in Jordan. Bab-edh-Dhra, translated word-for-word means the “gate” of “struggle.” But taken together, it can also mean “ends of the earth.”  It was thought to be the site of the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.

And for the first time I learned that archaeologists were finally looking beyond pot shards and other artifacts…and starting to pay attention to finding evidence of disease and nutrition in skeletal remains. (Little did I know at the time, but my future wife was actually working at the Bab-edh-Dhra Expedition while I was just listening in the comfort of the auditorium.)

Soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to pursue my own interests in paleopathology, to some extent as a hobby (since mainstream medicine did not take anthropology seriously yet). And during one early vacation, I went to work on a historic 19th century skeletal collection held at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, along with my late colleague Marc Kelley.

And what we found would change everything…

Amazingly both doctors and anthropologists had always taught us the myth that tuberculosis of the lungs leaves no traces on the ribs or skeleton. But Marc and I found markings on many of these skeletons that had never been described before. And it turned out that every one of them had suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, or TB.

Some of the full-time career academic anthropologists in the U.S. took pot shots at us from their ivory towers. We weren’t “experts” in paleopathology. After all, it was just a “hobby” for me. But soon, across the pond in the U.K., paleopathologists were referencing the “classic” work of Kelley & Micozzi on rib lesions in TB.

A few years later, archaeologists and historians in New England began uncovering 19th century graves with evidence that they had long ago been disturbed. It was clear the skeletons had been re-arranged after the bodies had been buried. With stakes driven through their rib cages and/or the skeletons rearranged in the form of a skull and cross-bones (or a “Jolly Roger” as we say here on the New England coast).

Further investigation revealed through historic records that these individuals were thought to be involved in “vampire” outbreaks. Records showed that members of these families and communities had succumbed to a mysterious blood-wasting disease after these “vampires” had died and been buried.

Contemporary accounts in the local newspapers described how it was thought these “vampires” were rising from the grave and feeding on and eventually killing their victims.

It turns out…tuberculosis was common during the time of these 19th century “vampire” outbreaks. It just wasn’t understood at the time. It afflicted many young adults. And was so pervasive it became known as the “white plague,” because the afflicted were so deathly pale.

We now know that the “vampires” were themselves victims of TB. And that before they died, had often already passed the disease onto others close to them. And of course, those subsequent “victims” eventually followed them to the grave.

So how did our modern New England archaeologists figure this out? They had read about the findings of Kelley & Micozzi and detected the characteristic rib lesions of TB in the “vampire” skeletons.

On an October 31, 20 years ago, the New York Times wanted to run a seasonal story about these old New England “vampires.” They called me for an interview to help explain the science. But I was in meetings with U.S. Secretary of Health Louis Sullivan in Washington (for my day job) and they were on deadline—so the New York Times never got the whole story. Now you just did.