Scanning skulls for their secrets

    A Philadelphia collection of skulls may give clues to human variation and evolution.

    Under cover of darkness, a rare collection of thirty skulls were taken from their shelves at Philadelphia’s Mutter museum early yesterday. But they weren’t stolen; they were delicately transported across town, to the University of Pennsylvania hospital.


    Before dawn Sunday morning University of Pennsylvania professor Janet Monge and her colleagues wheeled precious cargo across 34th Street to the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Monge: Hopefully nobody knows what we have!

    What they have are 30 skulls that make up part of the 139-skull Hyrtl collection, the centerpiece of the Mutter museum. Several days earlier, Anna Dhody carefully plucked a skull from a display cabinet at the Museum.

    Dhody: Here we go we have Julius Farkas, age 28, a protestant soldier. Suicide by gunshot wound of the heart because of weariness of life.

    Dhody is the curator of the museum, which is dedicated to medical oddities and rare human specimens.

    She hands the skull to professor Monge, who packs it in a bubble-wrap bag.

    Monge: It was uncommon to have people collected that were just regular people. So often times you get a lot of criminals and people who did unusual acts.

    The Hyrtl collection has skulls of some regular people from 19th century Europe – a lovesick teenager, a cabin boy, a soldier, a shoemaker – as well as some unique characters. There’s the tightrope walker who died of a broken neck and a famous Viennese prostitute. Each has his brief story written in meticulous cursive on the side of his skull.

    Dhody: That’s what makes this collection so rare. This known population. As Janet was saying there’s very few of them in the United States, and to have one that is predominantly European is definitely a benefit.

    The collection has fascinated people at the Mutter Museum for more than a century.

    On Friday, a group of EMTs in training clustered around the 99 skulls still on display.

    Vox1: A lot of these skulls. They’re amazing, really. Just goes to show what people went through back in the day. It was just crazy.

    Vox2: A lot of these skulls must have suffered a lot of pain before they passed on. When I first walked in and saw them it was kind of hard to bear. But after just looking and reading, a lot of them suffered and a lot of them didn’t.

    Take for example Geza, curator Anna Dhody’s favorite skull.

    Dhody: And it says here he died at 80. He’s from Hungary or Romania. A reformist herdsman, and at the age of 70 he attempted suicide by cutting his own throat. However the wound was not fatal because he had an ossified larynx. And he had a laryngeal fistula that remained, and he lived until 80 without melancholy. Which I just like the way it ends, kind of on a happy note in a sense. In this one card, we have this entire story, this chunk. And I think it’s just amazing.

    Now Geza will tell a different story – perhaps that of human development or evolution or variation. That’s why the thirty skulls were packed and moved over to the University of Pennsylvania hospital this weekend, to be CAT-scanned and preserved digitally. Monge explains that the scanning of the Hyrtl collection of skulls is part of a project she’s leading that will also scan all the skeletal specimens at Penn Museum.

    Monge: Our hope is to actually make a virtual museum of all these skeletal specimens because in lots of aspects of anthropology, biology, bioengineering, many of these kinds of things it becomes really key to have a comparative specimen and one that’s virtual where everything is digitized and everything you can assign a number to makes it a much more efficient way to do research.

    In the hospital’s radiology department Sunday morning, the skulls rest on a bed of sheets, one at a time, for scanning.

    Monge and her colleague Tom Schoenemann from James Madison University have scanned full mummies here, even solved some mysteries.

    Schoenemann: It was very delicately sewn cloth around what looked to be a head and nobody wanted to rip it open to figure out what was inside. So we scanned it and I believe there was a skull in it, but like of a very very young child or of a still born child, hard to tell.

    Ultimately Schoenemann and Monge want to take all the skull scans and merge them into one digital reference human. The Hyrtl skulls would add Europeans to the other populations they’ve already scanned.

    Monge: Then once we have a reference human and someone wants to do a comparison or look at a pathology they can see what the normal range of variation is in humans.

    Janet Monge hopes the skulls will be of interest to a wide range of researchers, like Robert McCarthy, an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University.

    McCarthy: Everything that I’m interested in looking at research question-wise is basically inside the skulls.

    McCarthy uses CT-scans to get inside skulls without damaging them. He is especially interested in microcephaly — or tiny heads. Though the Hyrtl collection includes only one microcephalic head, that’s enough to increase McCarthy’s digital sample size by about 15 percent. He says the Hyrtl collection will be a valuable addition to the small amount of digital skull data available.

    McCarthy: A lot of the anthropoligical questions we’d like to answer are about human variation. And if you want to know about human variation you want to have a lot of different individuals from different populations, and certainly this will fill that need.

    Janet Monge is making all the cat-scan data freely available to anyone who wants it. So skulls like that of Geza, or Julius Farkas, can continue to tell us stories from beyond the grave.

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