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What Not To Do In A Morgue: A Lesson For The Archaeologist?

4 Feb

The fantastic Chirurgeon’s  Apprentice Facebook page has highlighted this rather dark but entertaining article by Simon Winchester on his experience of working in a morgue for a summer in the early 1960’s.  In it Simon explains the many lessons he learned when dealing first hand with cadavers of the recently dead, but he also highlights one big mistake he made with a particular gentleman.

Winchester explains:

All this may have been a mistake of judgment. It was not, however, the Mistake. That came a month into my employment when a couple of attendants wheeled into the mortuary the lifeless and, except for his bare feet, rather well-dressed corpse of an elderly, white-haired man. By this time such a delivery was quite routine: I had already had many similar encounters with the lately dead. But this fellow was different, mainly because he had a large tag tied around his big toe. On it was written a question mark and in large letters the word LEUKEMIA.

I was alone in the building at the time of the delivery, and I wasn’t immediately sure what to do. But a bit of riffling through Mr. Utton’s desk eventually fetched up a tattered old manual describing what to do in the event of discovering gunshot wounds, for example, or upon finding an eruption of angry-looking and possibly infection-laden spots on a corpse. It offered me a single line of advice on leukemia: “Remove femur,” it said, “and send it for examination by the laboratory.” (Winchester 2014).

Duly having removed one of the gentleman’s femora for testing and then prepared and dressed the cadaver, Winchester waited for the undertaker to come and take the man away.  However the undertaker was not impressed by the rather floppy state of one of the man’s thighs and told Winchester to put something inside it to stabilize it whilst he went away for dinner.  Unfortunately Winchester chose a zinc metal rod to replace the removed femur, unaware that the individual in question was due to be cremated, not buried, the next day.

Morgue1

A familiar scene from morgues across the land. Tags were often kept on the toes of bodies to identify them and highlight any pathology in the body (Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS, from here).

Fortunately a good dose of black humour from the family saved any law suits appearing, but the article did make me think about the implications for this in archaeological record.  For example for a person to practice a trade they must first learn and train, often undergoing an apprenticeship under a master or a tradesman.  Mistakes are bound to made in any field of trade, particularly where high technical skill is needed to carry out a procedure.  I wonder if sometimes, especially in the field of prehistoric mortuary archaeology, some things are held up as examples of ritual activities where there has perhaps been a simple mistake that has been covered up or not uncovered, or a result of the taphonomy processes at play.

It also reminded me of a particularly fine biography by Joel F. Harrington of a 16th century Nuremberg executioner that I read late last year.  Meister Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) was a remarkable man, known principally as a highly skilled executioner who attained a particularly high rank in the famous city.  Contrary to his official position Schmidt also became a well-respected healer in his later life.  He carried out his job, indeed his life, with the up-most respect for the sanctity of the position that his father passed down to him, even though he was largely excluded from society because of his job during the majority of his life.  Amazingly the intimate details (names, crimes and last moments) of the many individuals that he dispatched, and the execution methods that were used, were all kept in a personally sparse diary that Schmidt himself wrote.

Schmidt executing

The only reliable picture of Franz Schmidt in action, seen here executing Hans Froschel on the 18th of May in 1591. A brutal but quick death by the sword, a method that required a quick and a steady arm stroke to dispatch the victim. It could easily go wrong if the stroke was not powerful enough to slice and separate the head from the body. (Image credit: Staatsarchiv Nürnberg here).

Harrington makes the point that the young executioner, during the process of learning his trade from his father, likely used butchered animals and stray dogs to practice the various execution methods that were used during this period.  Whilst the book is full of grisly details (being broken on the wheel must have been hell for one), Harrington (2013) puts Schmidt, his life and work, into a broader German and European political framework that effectively illuminates the value that the executioner played in the keeping of law and order in the 16th century.

Being an executioner also often took a physical and mental strain as it was a demanding office to hold, having to both torture and execute criminals but also having to take part in the often elaborate processions of walking the criminal (Harrington 2013).  Further to this there was always the constant reminder that executioners who were accused of a botched torture session or execution could find themselves being penalized or outcast, or even executed, much like the doctors of the day who were accused of failing a patient (Harrington 2013).  I also recommend Winder’s (2011) informal free for all journey around Germany, which also wonderfully places the country in a historical context and is well worth a read alone for some pretty interesting historical hangouts.

Further Information

  • The article, by Simon Winchester, can be found here.
  • An extract of Meister Franz Schmidt’s diary and of a talk by Harrington can be read here.
  • Head to medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’s enthralling site The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice to learn all about surgery in the early modern period.
  • For all your mortuary archaeology needs head to Bones Don’t Lie, a regularly updated blog by Katy Meyers who is a PhD candidate in mortuary anthropology at Michigan State University.

Bibliography

Harrington, J. F. 2013. The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent 16th Century. London: Picador.

Winder, S. 2011. Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern. London: Picador.

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Anatomy of Human Dissection: An Introspection

27 Sep

It was to be the last time that we saw his body on the table.  In the intervening weeks we had come to know his features with intimacy and respect.   Outside the wind had turned fierce, whilst the clouds, a deep shade of grey and pregnant with snow, streamed across the sky as winter proper closed in.  The Medical Teaching Unit had largely emptied over the past week, the last teaching week before the Christmas break.  Only the aspiring human osteologists and palaeoanthropologists now remained and filled the cavernous light blue coloured room.  With glistening scalpels and silver probes, the last examination of our beloved participant took place.  Pairs of nervous eyes and trembling hands ran through what we had been taught.   We touched and felt the cold body as we reeled off the list drilled into us by the 12 weeks of dissection classes.  Each muscle,  its attachment; insertion; action; nerve; blood supply; ligaments and tendons, were ticked off, one by one.  Each major actor in the human musculoskeletal system was to be identified and admired.  Just as in field archaeology, as in the body.  There are layers, superficial and deep, to be uncovered and appreciated, and then to be reflected back as we investigated further.

It had taken some getting used to at first, the chemical smell and the sights of the MTU.  The individuals who had donated their bodies were to be found wrapped up on their metallic trays, waiting with eternal patience in the centre of the room.  I couldn’t help but notice the sad fact of the bodies different lengths, from adult to child.  It was a hive of activity, bristling with groups of medical students crowding around different individuals on their cold slabs.  The medical students commandeered the central space every week, as they deconstructed the body to heal it.  Tucked away in the side of the main room, we learnt about the intricacies of the fleshed body; how movement is dictated by flexion and extension of passive and active striated skeletal muscle groups.  Each week we would start with a new aspect on our adopted individual and help uncover that week’s muscle group.

The first exam had been taken some 5 weeks before, and we now stared at the second, a mere day or two away.  Our focus this time was the lower half of the body, from the pelvis down to the toes.  The almost fan-like gluteal muscles provided a staunch launching pad from which to run down the thighs, past tensor fascia latae and the iliotibial band on the lateral aspect, to curve with the sartorius on the anterior aspect, as we reached and admired the complexity of the knee joint.  As we uncovered and cleaned each section free of adipose fat, we unveiled the vastus, adductors and hamstring muscle groups.  Whilst running a discussion on what constituted the delicate femoral triangle, I couldn’t help but think of my own numerous surgeries.  Of the many times I have had a scalpel part my skin on the lateral aspect of my thighs.  That scar tissue, on my body as a permanent fixation, serves as a reminder that I too have been laid on a table, ready to be examined and explored; that ultimately, there is no difference between the living and the dead- it is just a different state of being, of matter in the universe.

We had already uncovered the startlingly array and complexicity of the upper body in previous dissection sessions.  The human body, like any living creature, is a marvelous machine developed over millions of years of evolution.  Nothing is perfect however.  Homologies from a common ancestor, ‘the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function’, are to be found throughout the animal kingdom, and the human as a part of this, has many.  They are well documented, and I shan’t digress here.  However, it is important to note the expected variation within species and between species.  The detailed analysis of fossil hominids depends on this fundamental approach, even as new batteries of investigations are used.

And now, the week before Christmas, the main hall stood empty.  No bodies lay on their metallic tables, and there was no crowd of bustling medical students hunched over, investigating and desiccating the minutiae of life.  It was as if even the bodies had gone home for the bleak mid-winter break.  As we finished testing each other on the soleus or the gastrocnemius, we carefully de-bladed the scalpels, washed all of the tools, and placed them back inside our student dissection kits for the last time.  We silently thanked the individual’s generous bodily donation, and placed the plain cloth over the body and carefully tucked it in.  As I made my way to a nearby exit, my fellow colleagues were already outside breathing the fresh cold winter air.  As I opened the exit door I was accompanied by a lonely radio playing a mournful 1950s song.  Knowing that I would not be back in this place again, I closed it and bid the room a fond farewell.

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The University of Sheffield MSc Human Osteology program is the only UK based University that offers the teaching and education of human musculoskeletal anatomy by first hand dissection.  Other UK Universities offering Osteological Masters degrees only teach musculoskeletal anatomy in the lecture theatre.  I firmly believe that my education was enhanced by this opportunity.  At all times the people who donated their bodies to the Medical Teaching Unit were respected and treated with dignity.  The staff displayed professionalism and esteem, and encouraged us all to smile and to learn about the wonders of the human body.

Related and Further Information:

  • The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has an interesting article on vivisection in Early Modern England, and the medical advances and reactions to this method of dissection.
  •  An article in the Lancet by Lindsey Fitzharris (2012: 108-109), author of the above blog, discusses the effects of human dissection on early modern doctors and today’s medical practitioners .  
  • Guardian article citing the difficulties of obtaining skeletons for academic study, and the difficult process of donating bodies for medical and clinical science, with quotes from Dr Tim Thompson and Dr Piers D. Mitchell
  • At the Museum of London, there is a current exhibition on ‘Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men‘ (until April 2013) detailing the excavation of 262 burials from Royal London Hospital with extensive evidence of dissection, along with faunal remains.  The exhibition “reveals the intimate relationship between surgeons pushing forward anatomical study and the bodysnatchers who supplied them; and the shadowy practices prompted by a growing demand for corpses” (MoL 2013).