As a pathologist, Michael Zimmerman was familiar with dead bodies, but when he was asked to autopsy a mummy for the first time, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
There were a dozen layers of wrapping, which he peeled off one at a time, “like Chinese boxes,” he said. When he finished, he found the body was dark brown and hard. “It smelled like old books.”
That was more than 30 years ago. Now, having dissected and CT-scanned mummies from all over the world — some ancient and some just two or three centuries old — Zimmerman has begun drawing conclusions about health and disease in past eras. His work and that of other so-called paleopathologists is starting to challenge assumptions about which diseases are caused by modern lifestyles and which ones are as ancient as the pharaohs.
“Studying mummies adds a crucial dimension of time to our understanding of diseases and their role in shaping human biology and history,” he said. “Mummies give us information about the evolution of disease. . . . It’s important that we don’t think of disease as a static thing.”
Zimmerman originally envisioned a more traditional medical career, but his plans changed in 1969, when he was working at what was then called the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, he met a medical student who had a passion for mummies.
The student had once tried to dissect what he had been told was a 3,000-year-old mummy from Egypt, but it turned out to be a fake, Zimmerman said: “There was a 1898 copy of the Milwaukee Journal stuffed inside.”
A wealth of information
The medical student never solved the mystery of who created the phony mummy, but he did manage to acquire a real one, this time from the Smithsonian, and he asked Zimmerman to lead the autopsy. This one was the real deal. It had come from the Aleutian Islands and dated back 200 to 300 years. It was customary during that period for the Aleut people to mummify the dead by putting them in caves with vents of hot gas that naturally desiccated them. Getting rid of the water inhibits the growth of bacteria that cause bodies to decay, he said.
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