Medical histories to ancient diseases

By mike henderson on 8 Feb 2012

This month Katie van Schaik talks about some of the things she encountered in the two weeks spent with us…

The ‘punched-out lesions’ were unmistakable, and their form matched what I’d seen only on X-rays:  multiple myeloma, leading to the consumption of bone in the skull, both humeri, and in the distal femora.  Yet this man whose skeleton showed evidence of this disease had lived long before X-ray machines, long before a diagnosis of ‘multiple myeloma’ could have been made to explain the pain and fatigue he likely felt.

Roman, multiple=

The opportunity to see the remains of a human afflicted with multiple myeloma was part of a learning experience in osteology and palaeopathology graciously provided by Jelena Bekvalac and Mike Henderson of the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London.  I’m a third year medical student at Harvard Medical School in the United States – and I’m also in the process of earning my PhD in Ancient History from the Harvard Department of Classics.  Palaeosteology, which requires knowledge of human anatomy, pathology, archaeology, and history, is important for my PhD dissertation, though I had little prior exposure to the field before meeting Mike and Jelena and studying from the museum collections of nearly 20,000 sets of human remains.  The resources of the Museum of London are unlike those anywhere else in the world, and the abundance of learning opportunities there is matched only by Mike and Jelena’s generosity in sharing and teaching.

I was able to study the remains of humans who had lived with tuberculosis, amputations, osteomyelitis, syphilis, fractured bones, congenital dysplasias, osteoarthritis, dental disease, physical trauma, cancer, and gout, all maladies which are still with us today.

Roman, multiple=

As a future clinician who has obtained medical histories from (living) patients in the process of my medical training, and also as an ancient historian, I recognize the importance of history: of the world, and of the individuals who form that world.  Palaeosteology permits us to tell a history as intimate as it is relevant.  With palaeosteology and its associated disciplines, the man called “Roman, multiple myeloma”
gains a voice: his diagnosis becomes part of the story of a Roman male who likely died after age 45; who was buried with ceramics; who had excellent teeth without cavities (and therefore probably didn’t eat too much white sugar). 

What we learn from his skeleton, combined with the knowledge we are privileged to gain from other skeletons, places him in the context of broader epidemiological phenomena in his world, and in ours.  His story, and those of countless others carefully looked after at the Museum of London, become part of the history of human life, illness, wellness, and death – of our history.

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