Mummy may be part of UM collection

Remains put on eBay similar to specimens at medical school

December 08, 2006|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun reporter

Ronn Wade wants his mummy back.

It's a quest that started in October, when Michigan authorities confiscated the mummified cadaver of a child illegally placed for sale on eBay.

The incident briefly made headlines around the world. And Wade, director of the anatomical services division at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is convinced the body is part of an obscure but historic set of medical mummies known as the Burns collection.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Health & Science section incorrectly identified a forensics expert who examined a mummified cadaver that may have been part of a collection owned by the University of Maryland. The scientist was Norman Sauer, a professor of anthropology at Michigan State University. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

Acquired by the university in 1820, it's one of the oldest collections of mummies once used for dissection in the United States. Since 1974, Wade has been its de facto curator.

"They're such an interesting part of the history of anatomy - definitely one of a kind," says Kristin Horner, a Michigan State University anthropologist who helped produce a recent National Geographic TV program on the Burns mummies.

Preserved in a toxic stew of arsenic and salt, the artfully dissected specimens helped educate the first generation of medical students at UM, which celebrates its bicentennial next year.

The mummies are also revealing relics of the trade's murky early days, when the dissection of human corpses was banned and desperate medical students routinely turned to body snatching to practice their craft.

"Few sciences are as rooted in shame, infamy and bad PR as human anatomy," writes Mary Roach in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

For all these reasons, Wade wants his mummy back. There's just one problem: The Detroit man who put the specimen up for sale may not want to hand it over.

"I'm not going to fight over dead people," says Wade, who oversees the state's donor body program. "It's a question of ethics. It all ties into the history of medicine in Maryland."

The collection

You can glimpse a few specimens from the Burns collection in historic Davidge Hall. But to really appreciate a 200-year-old cadaver up close, you must pass the guarded entrance of the 14-story Bressler Research Building on West Baltimore Street and descend to its cinder-block basement.

This is where all bodies donated to science in Maryland wind up, says Wade, who also serves as director of the State Anatomy Board.

One recent morning, Wade escorted a visitor beyond swinging doors marked "Laboratory Area - Authorized Personnel Only" and into a cavernous cooler chilled to 34 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Right here," Wade says, patting a triple-walled cardboard box marked "Burns."

Wade stores the Burns cadavers in a half-dozen cartons alongside newer arrivals, respectfully hidden on draped gurneys or bagged in plastic and stacked along the walls.

Back in his office, Wade pulls out a Burns specimen he keeps in his office credenza to show visitors. It's the left half of a shriveled head, masterfully dissected to reveal the carotid artery. The head, which Wade stores in a No. 10 envelope box, is the color of beef jerky and smells of age.

"I wouldn't get too close," Wade warns when a visitor starts to bend near. Chemical analysis, he says, has revealed the cadavers contain mercury, arsenic, lead, sugar and salt.

From a red plastic bag, he pulls out another Burns collection showpiece: a mummified arm with a crude black-and-red tattoo.

"It's the only identifying mark on any of the specimens," Wade says. The tattoo depicts the coat of arms of Pope Pius VII, who served between 1800 and 1823.

Wade says it's a tantalizing clue to a major mystery: Who were these people?

All Wade knows is that the collection was created by Scottish anatomist Allen Burns in the early 1800s. Burns lacked a formal education, but his knowledge of anatomy and skill with a knife were legendary.

At 16, he was already running the dissection room of a prominent Glasgow medical school. By 30, he had penned two of the field's early classic texts and identified several anatomical structures - the space of Burns, Burns' ligament - that still bear his name.

But Burns, according to Wade, was equally famous for his hard-won collection of dissected cadavers, known then as the Burns Museum.

At that time, the only legal source of cadavers was the public executioner. When dead criminals were in short supply, anatomists had little choice but to rob graves - or pay professional "resurrectionists" to obtain bodies on their behalf.

Burns himself was a convicted body snatcher.

Before his death in 1813, Burns bequeathed his collection to a protege named Granville Patterson, who was later hired by UM as its chair of surgery. In 1820, Patterson sold the Burns Museum to the school for $7,800. (More than $134,000 in today's dollars.)

Once numbering more than 500 specimens, the collection today comprises fewer than 150 dissected adult body parts and a few precious intact infants.

The rest, says Wade, were likely lost, tossed or stolen.

Surprise finds

Burns' mummies do turn up from time to time. In the early 1990s, Wade got a call from a man in Southern Maryland who literally had a skeleton in the closet.

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