Mummies and “vampires” help us solve modern medical mysteries

Today, on All Hallows Eve, I’d like to talk a bit about mummies and “vampires”—and the actual science behind them, of course.

In fact, there’s a small and specialized area of science called paleopathology, which studies diseases in ancient populations. And this area of study lent itself very well to many interesting exhibitions and presentations over the years at the Medical Museum on the now-defunct campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., which I directed from 1986 to 1995.

Mummies, specifically, serve as good study specimens, as their remains have been preserved. Along with the preserved soft tissues, mummies’ skeletons also still contain traces of many diseases on the bone.

Thankfully, intact mummies are still quite abundant—not only in Egypt, but all around the world where the climate permits. And skeletal remains and fossils are even more abundant.

Of course, paleopathology doesn’t appeal to many ivory-tower researchers because it involves getting your hands dirty—literally. And you need to know a good bit of real biology, medicine, and science, too.

But researchers should be interested in it, because finding out what diseases were common (or not) during earlier eras of history provides important insights for modern health problems.

Paleopathology gives us important findings about health

One of the first times I heard about paleopathology, I was a young medical student attending a lecture called “Captured in Bone” by researchers with the Smithsonian Institution at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in the historic Harrison Rotunda.

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.”

Bab edh-Dhra is thought to be the site of the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. And some also call the location, “The Gates of Hell,” which Auguste Rodin famously depicted in his iconic sculpture. (The first bronze cast of “The Gates of Hell” is owned by and housed in the Rodin Museum, also in Philadelphia, which has become perhaps a more and more fitting location for it.)

Little did I yet know at the time, but my future wife had actually worked at the Bab edh-Dhra expedition. And she was in the audience that night too, although we didn’t yet know each other.

Important findings about TB almost missed

At this lecture, I learned for the first time that some archaeologists were finally looking beyond potshards and other artifacts…and starting to pay attention to finding evidence of disease and nutrition in human mummies and skeletal remains.

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

In fact, during one rare 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. (Marc and I shared the same first name and spelling and the same birthday. And—our fathers grew up in the same little coal-mining town in southwest Pennsylvania, called Fairchance.)

We’d always been taught that pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) of the lungs leaves no trace on the ribs or skeleton. But Kelley 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 TB!

As a result, 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. And it was just a “hobby” for me.

But soon, across the pond in the U.K., anthropologists and archaeologists were referencing the “classic” work of Kelley & Micozzi on rib lesions in TB.

A few years later, our discovery was referenced again…

Archaeologists and historians in New England had begun studying a few 19th-century graves. It was clear the skeletons had been buried, then later dug up and re-arranged in the form of a skull and cross-bones—with stakes driven through their rib cages. (On the New England coast, we call this pose a “Jolly Roger.”)

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

Local news reports at the time described how it was thought that these “vampires” were rising from the grave and killing their victims by sucking their blood.

It turns out, TB was common—especially among young adults—during the time of these 19th-century “vampire” outbreaks. In fact, it was so pervasive, it became known as the “white plague,” because the afflicted were so deathly pale from chronic blood loss.

Of course, we now know the “vampires” were also victims of TB. So, before they died, they had often already passed the slow-growing disease onto others close to them. And their so-called “victims” eventually followed them to the grave.

History can help us fight disease

So—how did our modern New England archaeologists figure this out?

Well, they had read about the findings of Kelley & Micozzi and detected the characteristic rib lesions of TB in the “vampire” skeletons, of course!

A few years later, in 1991, The New York Times wanted to run a seasonal story about these old New England “vampires” on Halloween. And 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, D.C., and they were on deadline. So, they went ahead and ran the story without my interview and never quite got the whole story, as usual.

Still today, I find many well-funded ivory tower academics and researchers are so obsessed with technology and futuristic projects like “cancer moonshots” and “decades of the brain” that they miss real, important clues from the past about fighting disease that are right there, hiding in plain sight.

In fact, 25 years ago, I published research in the journal Human Pathology that showed many of today’s most-common cancers 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. And we should direct many more resources into probing that conundrum…instead of probing the empty political promise of a “moonshot” for a cancer cure. (I will further expose the fakery around the supposed, “race for the cure” for breast cancer in a future Daily Dispatch.)

I won’t hold my breath for a moonshot cure. But, you can count on this…

I’ll keep bringing you important modern and historical perspectives, when applicable, to my reporting. So, stay tuned, as always, to my Daily Dispatch and Insiders’ Cures monthly newsletter. If you’re not yet a subscriber, all it takes is one click.

And I hope you have a very Happy Halloween, handing out this dark sweet treat to all of the young vampires and mummies who come knocking at your door tonight!