How Halloween “monsters” can help solve these medical mysteries

Now that we’re into October, and moving closer to Halloween, I thought I’d start getting in the spirit by talking a bit about mummies and vampires — and the actual science behind them.

Believe it or not, these “monsters” were actually the topics of some popular public educational programs when I directed the National Museum of Health and Medicine on the campus of the old, historic Walter Reed Army 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. Including autopsy-type examinations on the preserved remains of mummies.

This field doesn’t appeal to many ivory-tower academics because it involves getting your hands dirty — literally.

But in my view, finding out what diseases were common (or not) during earlier eras of history provides invaluable insights regarding modern health problems.

Old bones hold ancient medical secrets

I remember attending a lecture on paleopathology called “Captured in Bone” at the Smithsonian Institution 40 years ago as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. The lecture was held in Penn’s historic Harris Rotunda of the famed University Museum, and featured the excavations at Bab-edh-Dhra on the Dead Sea in Jordan.

Translated word-for-word, Bab-edh-Dhra means the “gate of struggle.” But it’s also been interpreted as the “ends of the earth.” It was thought to be the site of the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. And although I didn’t yet know it at the time, my future wife was also in the audience that night, having excavated at Bab-edh-Dhra the prior summer.

At this lecture, I learned that archaeologists were finally looking beyond pot shards and other artifacts…and starting to look for evidence of disease and nutrition in skeletal remains. In fact, many diseases leave traces on the bone, even though the soft tissues are gone.

Soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to pursue my own interests in paleopathology — to some extent as a hobby — since mainstream medicine didn’t take it seriously yet.

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…

Examining ancient evidence helps solve modern problems

In graduate and medical school, I learned from both doctors and anthropologists that pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) of the lungs doesn’t leave any trace on the ribs or skeleton. But Kelley and I found unusual markings that had gone unnoticed on many of the skeletons held at the Cleveland Museum. And it turns out that every single one of them had suffered from 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 began referencing the “classic” work of Kelley & Micozzi on rib lesions in TB. I must admit — it felt good to finally get credit for our discovery!

Then a few years later, I had another brush with ancient bones…

Vampire myth debunked with bone evidence

A few years later, archaeologists and historians in New England began uncovering 19th century graves. It was clear the skeletons had been re-arranged at some point after the bodies had been buried.

Stakes had been driven through their rib cages, or the skeletons had been rearranged in the form of a skull and cross-bones (or a “Jolly Roger” as they say on the New England coast where I grew up).

Further investigation of historic records revealed that these individuals had been thought to be “vampires.” Plus, records showed that members of their families 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 that these “vampires” were rising from the grave and feeding on — and eventually killing — others in the community.

It turns out…tuberculosis was also very common in the U.S., especially among young adults, during the time of these 19th century “vampire” outbreaks. It just wasn’t very well understood. And it became known as the “white plague” because the afflicted were so deathly pale.

Of course, we now know that the “vampires” really suffered from TB. And before they died, they had often already passed the disease onto others close to them. So, of course, the subsequent “victims” eventually followed them to the grave.

So — how did the New England archaeologists figure this out?

Wouldn’t you know it — they had read about the findings of Kelley & Micozzi and detected the characteristic rib lesions of TB in the “vampire” skeletons!

Obviously, tuberculosis is rare these days (with fewer than 20,000 cases per year in the U.S.), but as I’ve written before, infectious diseases are on the rise again.