Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021
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It wasn't until the 19th century that doctors mastered the ancient art of embalming

If every ancient Egyptian who has ever been mummified were suddenly to rise from the dead and attack, we'd be looking at an army of 100 to 400 million -- and they'd be in pretty decent shape, too. Yes, those Egyptians knew what they were doing. In fact, it wasn't until the late 19th century that corpse preservation reached a level even comparable to that of the pharaohs.

Egyptians were not the first preservation artists, however. The oldest deliberate embalmers were from South America. Some 7000 years ago, the Chinchoros of Chile amputated limbs, inserted wooden supports into them, plumped the torso with feathers and then put the entire mess back together again before slathering it with clay to make the body last. Later, around 1500 BC, the Incas of Peru embalmed their dead using salt solutions. The bodies were wrapped in fur, fabric and vegetation, then placed in the fetal position inside ceramic jars and baskets, which were lowered into subterranean shafts. In the 16th century, Spanish conquerors pillaged these Inca cemeteries for "religious reasons" -- to get at the gold that was stowed alongside the mummies.

Some of the oldest preserved corpses are the 3500-year-old mummies of Urumchi recently discovered in the remote northwestern deserts of China. They were tall with reddish hair, believed to hail from an unknown European civilization existing on an ancient trade route between the two continents. These corpses were preserved by a combination of salty soil and climatic conditions. Other ancient accidental mummies have been found everywhere from the frozen climes of the Alps, the Andes and Greenland, down to the mossy peat bogs of Scandinavia.

Better even than Mother Nature, the best embalmers of yesteryear were no doubt the Egyptians. They believed that preserving the body after death was necessary to ensure an afterlife, so ancient priests and medicine men had to devise an effective embalming process. At first, the arid climate alone helped them in their endeavours as evidenced by crudely preserved corpses from around 3500 BC. To prevent decomposition, bodies were left out in the wind and sun. The combination of elements quickly turned corpses into what can only be described as human jerky. Interment in searing-hot sand sealed the deal.

After a few thousand years of trial and error, the Egyptians began to work on preserving corpses from the inside out. Initially, only the wealthiest, most important people could afford the new and improved form of guaranteed immortality. Mummies of pharaohs and their complete entourages (wives, kids, servants and pets) have been found intact in subterranean chambers along with all their worldly possessions, which, like their bodies, were believed to accompany them into the next world. By 1500 BC, anyone with a few bucks could afford the process. Legions of embalmers set up shop along the Nile.

Though their exact recipe remains a mystery, the basic embalming process is known. The first step was brain extraction via the nostrils. All organs were removed, marinated and replaced, or else packed in special burial jars. The body was then disinfected with wine, immersed in a salt solution and left to soak for a month or more. Afterwards, it was left to dehydrate in the sunlight.

Since the soul was thought to leave the body at the time of death and float about aimlessly, enticing it back in was crucial for eternal life to be achieved. To that end, makeup, scented herbs and subcutaneous padding were employed. The final step to make sure a person stayed fresh and pretty for all eternity was to coat the corpse in resin and wrap it in hundreds of yards of thin linen strips.

Versions of the Egyptian technique spread throughout the world to Assyria, Ethiopia, Persia and Syria. Various ancient recipes called for packing the body with herbs and aloe, while a smothering immersion in honey, wax and resin gained popularity in Babylonia.

Mummification endured in Egypt later than many people realize, but by the seventh century AD, most sun worshippers had converted to Christianity. What followed in Europe throughout the Middle Ages was undoubtedly the low point in embalming history as corpses were left to rot in the streets or simply dumped in mass graves. Not surprisingly, it was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) who foresaw the future of embalming. He devised a way to preserve tissue samples through chemical injection, providing him with enough time to make detailed studies of human anatomy.


During the 17th and 18th centuries, European scientists and physicians developed similar systems. The Dutch doctor Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) was the first to inject a chemical solution into the arteries for the purpose of staving off decay. Initially, he practised on fish and other animals. From there, he moved on to human fetuses, babies and then some adults. Ruysch arranged his work into melodramatic and elaborate poses complete with props. He titled these morbid dioramas "pieces," as if they were works of art: A drunken rat holding a small beer barrel; The syphilitic skull of a prostitute kicked by the leg of a baby. Inquisitive visitors bought tickets to view the collection, which became known as Ruysch's Repository of Curiosities.

For his embalming efforts, Scottish anatomist William Hunter (1718-1783) replaced blood with mercury and a few other ingredients such as oil, alcohol and camphor. Hunter attained more notoriety than appreciation, however, when he agreed to embalm the deceased wife of a local dentist, Martin Van Butchell, and put her on display in her husband's office. Van Butchell thought it was an excellent way to publicize his dental practice, but he also recognized a side benefit. The procedure allowed him to continue to receive a stipend from his wife's wealthy family by taking advantage of a clause in their marriage contract, which specified that he would continue to receive the money as long as wife Mary remained "above ground." Despite the public backlash, Hunter's method worked very well: Mary's corpse survived in a museum until a bomb destroyed it during the London Blitz.

A few others also enjoyed moderate success with embalming formulas via arterial injection. Pharmacist Jean Gannal (1791-1882) was the first to offer embalming services to the French public. But it was the 1867 discovery of formaldehyde by the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818-1892) that paved the way for modern embalming techniques.

The dubious distinction of "Father of Modern Embalming" goes to Dr Thomas Holmes (1817-1900), the master battlefield embalmer who claimed to have single-handedly preserved 4028 corpses. Not long before the American Civil War, Holmes had perfected his own embalming technique using a safer formula than the arsenic and zinc-chloride solutions employed by medical schools to preserve cadavers for study. His timing couldn't have been better.

On early Civil War battlefields, a handful of so-called embalming surgeons were tackling a new problem -- making sure the bodies of fallen Union soldiers could survive the long buggy ride home for burial. Military medics, surgeons and civilian doctors alike were recruited in this gruesome, but necessary, task.

Holmes became the leader of these efforts and was soon teaching hundreds of protégés his trade. The embalmers eagerly followed the troops, setting up tents beside the battlefields in the hopes of both performing a valuable service and, of course, making a few bucks in the process. The lucrative financial prospects motivated many of them, since there was no shortage of clients. In the early part of the war, the cost of embalming was $US50 for an officer and $US25 for an enlisted man. Later, the price increased, but still tens of thousands of soldiers were embalmed. Of these, most were officers.

Embalming was principally a Northern conceit; Holmes was from New York and the chemicals and tools needed were invented and distributed from Northern locations. In addition, the families of the fallen soldiers who paid for the privilege generally had more money than those of their Southern counterparts. Embalming didn't take hold in the South until after the war had ended.

The process of embalming wasn't always a pretty one as surgeons often had to search extensively through graves and field hospitals' makeshift morgues for the corpses they'd been hired to preserve. On the upside, there was little blood to be drained from the corpses since most had bled to death. Like vultures, some embalmers would fight over the bodies of officers who came from wealthy families. Often, soldiers themselves prepaid for the privilege of being sent home intact. They began wearing dog tags to make the embalmers' jobs easier.

Today, we embalm the dead in order to allow enough time before burial for religious rituals and social customs and also for sanitary reasons. Not all cultures subscribe to the practice, but in North America and Europe, it's fairly widespread. The modern embalming process is highly efficient -- bodily fluids in the abdominal cavity are aspirated then replaced with embalming fluid, which is also pumped into the carotid or femoral artery, pushing the body's blood out through incisions in the femoral or jugular vein. Still, modern embalming methods are generally cosmetic and temporary and it is fairly certain that, unlike those of the ancient Egyptians, the corpses of today wouldn't make for too fearsome an army tomorrow.


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