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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Mummies on his mind

November 24, 2008

Arthur Aufderheide.

Photo: Jeff Frey

Arthur Aufderheide is wrapping up a career of studying disease patterns in mummies

By Nicole Endres

Arthur Aufderheide enters his basement office near the loading dock of a research building several blocks off the University of Minnesota, Duluth. In his office are the usual items: bookshelves, a microscope, a tape dispenser.... And then there is a set of mummified lungs. Inside a broken-down incubator he salvaged from another University of Minnesota Medical School department, about 5,000 samples of mummified body tissue.

It's the world's only mummified tissue archive, and it's Aufderheide's legacy. Since the longtime anatomy professor at the Medical School-Duluth Campus started studying disease patterns in mummies three decades ago, he has become one of the world's leading experts in a field known as paleopathology.

As the 86-year-old professor prepares to retire from research and teaching at the end of the fall semester, he is trying to finish a few things—just a dozen or so projects that he put aside years ago and his third book on mummies.

"Dr. Aufderheide brings a degree of passion and energy to his research in paleopathology that is almost palpable and certainly enviable," says Gary Davis, senior associate dean for the Medical School-Duluth. "Very few faculty members will retire knowing that they helped to create the academic field of study in which they became an international star."

Combining interests with expertise

Aufderheide, a native of New Ulm, Minnesota, and a member of the University of Minnesota Medical School class of 1946, worked as a hospital pathologist in the Duluth area for the first 25 years of his career. When the University built a medical school on the Duluth campus, he volunteered to help develop the curriculum. As he got more involved, he decided to enter academia full time.

"This much is true: I was getting tired of what I was doing after 25 years," he says. "It wasn't the challenge it had been in the beginning. I didn't realize it when I came up here—it was just an accident—that I would end up having to do some form of research. That got the juices flowing again."

By that time, he was already 55 years old and didn't want to go back to school for a Ph.D. He had always been interested in archaeology and anthropology, so he thought he'd try to meld those interests with his knowledge of disease.

"When patients die in the hospital, a legacy of medical information is available to us through the autopsy," he says. "It occurred to me that maybe some of it—maybe just some of it—might still be there in mummies. And if so, I'd like to recover that information."

Aufderheide soon learned that only a minute fraction of 1 percent of human bodies end up as mummies. In some cultures, mummification results from packing bodies of the deceased with salts and painting them with a waterproofing agent to prevent rehydration. In extremely dry climates, a dead body can mummify spontaneously, or naturally, drying out before enzymes cause decay.

Not sure where to start his research, Aufderheide and his wife, Mary, flew to Bogota, Colombia, to see what they could find.

Mary had a knack, they discovered, for picking up foreign languages. And her people skills opened a lot of doors. "Fifty percent of the team consists of Mary," insists Aufderheide. "She made it all possible."

On the couple's first day in Bogota, they took a bus tour of the city. The tour guide spoke English well, and they hired her to accompany them on their excursion the next day. "By that night, we had seen 60 mummies in five different locations, and two of the curators were willing to work with us on long-term research," says Aufderheide.

"When patients die in the hospital, a legacy of medical information is available to us through the autopsy," he says. "It occurred to me that maybe some of it—maybe just some of it—might still be there in mummies."

It was a good start. Over the course of his career, Aufderheide estimates that he has studied at least 500 mummies—the oldest being about 9,000 years old—in 20 locations around the world. He hauls a suitcase carrying 10 to 20 thumb-sized samples from each mummy back to his lab for analysis. Studies of those samples have helped him identify disease patterns in ancient populations, which he hopes will inform the way modern medicine deals with infectious diseases.

The field of paleopathology has come a long way since Aufderheide launched his career 30 years ago.

At first, he wasn't even sure that there would be any useful medical information in mummies. After discovering that there was, indeed, Aufderheide relied entirely on a visual examination of each mummy to gather information. Today sophisticated technologies for analyzing ancient DNA are emerging that can reveal much more, and Aufderheide believes they will "explode the field."

Although it's still a pretty small field: Aufderheide is one of the few paleopathologists in the United States. Most others are in Europe. He's not sure what will happen to his archive of mummy tissue samples once he retires. But thanks in part to his archive, "now we can claim it's a legitimate area of study," Aufderheide says.

After so much travel, the Aufderheides say they're about ready to retire their passports. But they have at least one more trip planned: to Bolzano, Italy, next spring for the opening of a mummy exhibit.

Watch a slide show of Aufderheide's mummies.

Republished from the Medical Bulletin, a publication of the Minnesota Medical Foundation.