Skip to main content

'Death can tell us a lot about living,' mummy expert says

By Val Willingham, CNN Medical Producer
Click to play
Mummies from the Burns Collection are overseen by Ronn Wade, father of the modern-day mummy.
  • Ronn Wade, son of a mortician, has been fascinated by human anatomy since childhood
  • His University of Maryland department oversees collection of medical mummies from 1800s
  • Wade and a partner created a mummy from scratch to better understand changes over time

BALTIMORE, Maryland (CNN) -- Throughout his life, Ronn Wade has been surrounded by death. And in most cases, it hasn't seemed to bother him.

"Death can tell us a lot about living," he says.

The son of a mortician from Laurel, Maryland, Wade has always been fascinated with the human anatomy. Intrigued by his father's medical books as a boy, he learned about the superior vena cava, the palmar plexus and the adductor tubercle early in life. Wade even mummified a dead rat for his ninth-grade science project. "Preserving the body was interesting to me." he says.

After a stint in Vietnam as an Air Force medic, Wade arrived at the University of Maryland School of Medicine as the director of the anatomical services division. One of Wade's responsibilities is to provide cadaver donors to local hospitals and medical institutions for surgical training.

But perhaps more intriguing, Wade's department also oversees a collection of 200 medical mummies, called the Burns Collection. Assembled in Scotland in the early 1800s by Allen Burns, an expert dissector, the mummies were used as teaching tools; eventually they were brought to Maryland and bought by the university.

The collection of mummies was well preserved, Wade discovered. "They were embalmed -- the fluids had things like mercury and arsenic -- and then they were salt- and sugar-cured to be preserved," he says.

And they were illegal. "This is at a time when there was no such thing as donations, and dissection of a body was strictly illegal," he says. "So many of them were taken from graves."

"You can see anatomy, you can see pathology, you can see if there has been surgery, like a bypass."
--Ronn Wade

Wade calls the collection fascinating and says we can learn a lot from mummies in general. "They were exposed to a lot of things we are today -- like bacteria, disease," he notes. "We can see signs of osteoarthritis, stress, even hardening of the arteries."

When you hear the word "mummy," you might think of the ancient Egyptians who preserved their rulers by drying out their bodies and wrapping them in bandages treated with special chemicals. They mummified bodies to protect them against decay. And, although we usually think of a mummy as a human being, animals -- and even plants -- can be mummified.

Although the ancient Egyptians were well-known for their mummification practices, other cultures also used special embalming procedures to preserve their dead. Some of the best-kept mummies date back more than 500 years from the Inca civilization, which stretched from Peru to Chile.

Weather can also create mummified bodies. In 1972, eight mummies were discovered in Greenland where they were naturally preserved by the freezing temperatures. Those bodies were hundreds of years old.

And peat bogs have been known to preserve bodies; many mummified remains have been found in peat bogs across Northern Europe, some dating back thousands of years.

Today, many scientists are using these mummies to learn how our bodies work. "You can see anatomy, you can see pathology, you can see if there has been surgery, like a bypass," says Wade.

Another modern-day use of mummies is genetic research. In Bolzano, Italy, the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman was recently created to investigate ancient DNA in mummies as well as the famous Iceman, found in the Alps in 1991. The Iceman's body, known as "Ötzi," dates back more than 5,300 years and is the oldest "wet" mummy -- in which the tissue is actually preserved with fat and some water -- ever found. By using high-tech imaging equipment, scientists hope to examine the body to better understand not only the aging process but also how man has evolved.

In 1994, Wade and Bob Brier, a professor of philosophy and Egyptology at Long Island University, took a human body that had been willed to science and mummified it following the ancient procedures of mummification outlined in ancient Egyptian lore. For weeks, the scientists painstakingly removed the organs from the donor, wrapped the body in bandages treated with "chemicals" the ancient Egyptians would have used, and recorded the process. "We didn't have a book to go by, no manual. It all had to be researched," Wade says. "And it had to be the way the Egyptians would have done it."

"Our goal was to have a control mummy to use to compare to other preserved bodies, to see what changes take place over time," says Wade.

Now on exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man, the Wade-Brier mummy is still being mined for data. "It's ongoing research; we still take cultures and biopsies from the mummy," says Wade. In fact, many scientists can look at the mummy and compare it with those they've found at archaeological sites.

Since making a mummy from scratch, Wade has been tinkering with other ways to preserve the body. Over the years, he's been working on a technique called "plastination" that replaces the water and fat inside a body's tissues with polymers -- sticky, hard-drying plastics. Through this process, three-dimensional specimens can be preserved for teaching and research. They can be held, cross-sectioned, even dissected for use as "hands-on" teaching tools.

"The whole idea is to enhance the learning process," says Wade. "Anatomy is not just dissecting bodies. Yes, it's a large part of what we do, but we can also help students enhance their studies, and assist clinical staff to develop skills and expertise, all for the sake of the patient."