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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Body farm

There may be some people afflicted with squeamish stomachs who might not enjoy this particular chapter in the book "Stiff" by Mary Roach.  Though the topic isn't one talked about around the dinner table, it is interesting information and we as a society benefit from what goes on at the body farm.

The original farm is on about 2 1/2 acres of land behind the medical center at the University of Tennessee. It was established in 1981.  Donated human bodies are decomposing there.  As they decay under varying conditions, detailed records are kept of everything from weather conditions to chemical changes in the tissues to the appearance and life stages of insects.  The data collected are invaluable to forensics in determining time of death.  After the decomposing is complete, the skeletons are stored for later analysis and reference in a big facility under the football stadium.  (Miss Sue, played by Kathy Bates in the movie "The Blind Side," mentions this fact to her pupil, Michael Oher, as he tries to figure out where he should go to college.)

Dr. Bill Bass is a forensic anthropologist and founder of the farm.  Along with Jon Jefferson, they have written two non-fiction books about murders which were solved and about answers found to other death-related mysteries  They are "Death's Acre" and "Beyond the Body Farm."  The first is on my growing list of books to read, and the second I listened to just a month ago.  Well written with an easy going style, the stories were very entertaining.

For instance, in one case the victim was attacked and had died in a cold bathroom in his house.  Knowing how different temperatures affect the rate of decomposition, and what that rate is, they were able to prove how long he had been dead and thus help convict the killer.  In another case, when a body was found in a burned out car, they surprisingly found that the insects that were on the body told a very different story than was imagined at first glance.  These blow flies go through their life stage in a very predictable manner.  It takes 14 days to go from egg to larvae to adult fly.  The larvae that was found under the body was charred, and they could prove that he had been dead about 10 days before the car was set on fire.

Dead bodies leave behind so much evidence,  Among other things, smell is one.

"Human remains dogs are distinct from the dogs that search for escaped felons and the dogs that search for whole cadavers.  They are trained to alert their owners when they detect the specific scents of decomposed human tissue....They can detect the lingering scent molecules of a decomposing body up to fourteen months after the killer lugged it away."

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Body snatching

One of the most fascinating books I have read in the past five or ten years has been "Stiff" by Mary Roach.  When I first brought it home, my husband was surprised and wondered why I had chosen to check this book out.  It seemed to be a little morbid-looking.  The front cover of the book has a picture of the bottom of two feet with the title "Stiff" on a toe tag.  It is about the "Curious Lives of Human Cadavers."  I don't remember who recommended it to me, but it was on my list of books to read.

My first time through the book was very educational and interesting.  Now I am going through it again to write this blog, and it is as amazing as I remember it.  The chapters range from body snatching to human crash test dummies.  I didn't find it morbid, but maybe just because I learned so much. 

There was a tradition in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to dissect only executed criminals.  The criminals didn't have a choice.  But the churchgoing masses believed in a literal rising from the grave, and dissection would probably spoil your chances of being resurrected.  Because of this belief no one donated his body to science.  Medical science was confined to the bodies of the criminals.

As the medical schools in America and Britain became more popular, the availability of cadavers remained the same.  Instructors in these schools found themselves backed into a corner.  They needed to come up with corpses or lose their students to anatomy schools in Paris, where there was more of an availability of bodies because unclaimed poor who died in city hospitals could be used. 

Anatomy professors resorted to extreme measures.  It was not uncommon to sneak into the graveyard and dig up a newly dead body to dissect.  This became known as body snatching.  It was distinct from grave robbing, which involved stealing jewels and heirlooms buried with the dead.  Being caught with a dead person's cufflinks was a crime, but being caught with the corpse itself carried no penalty.

It soon became a thriving business.  These body snatchers, or resurrectionists as they were also known, could make a living five to ten times greater than an unskilled laborer.  They wouldn't dig up the entire grave, just the top end of it, break the lid of the coffin, grab the body, and be done in under an hour.  Soon, people with money went to the trouble of making the graves harder and harder to break into, and poorer people were the ones whose bodies ended up on the dissection table.  Years later, this would have a devastating effect on children.

There is an organ in the upper chest, below the thyroid gland, called the thymus.  It was not understood to be a specialized organ of the immune system until 1961.  Before then, there were many ideas about its usefulness in the human body.  From the place where emotions were stored to an organ for saving room for growing lungs.  Many thought there was no functional importance to it.

In the early 1900's, when autopsies were performed on babies who were healthy and had unexpectedly died  (later called SIDS) it was noticed that the size of the thymus was larger than it should be.  It was believed that this was the cause of death, since no other reason could be found.   In 1920, the practice of  radiation on babies and children was begun on those whose thymus showed "an enlargement" through x-ray technology..  The thymus would shrink and parents and physicians were sure the right decision had been made.

In a 1945 text book, Dr. John Caffey, MD, was quoted as saying that irradiation was useless and dangerous.  The practice was mostly discontinued by 1960, though in some places it didn't end until into the 1970s.

The bottom line is that 20,000 to 30,000 deaths were caused from radiation-induced cancers.  Many were thyroid cancer and leukemia.  Later it was discovered that the thymus in these children was not overly large. Some of the information in the medical community had been gathered from these body-snatched corpses and was, in some cases, bad information.  The people were poor and often malnourished, and the size of the thymus in those bodies was smaller than it should have been. 

Now you have heard something interesting.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Unlucky Max Planck/Marie Curie

Once again I have checked out too many books at the library.  So many seem to reach out and grab me and beg to be taken home.  Once again they are due, and cannot be renewed another time.  So I am skimming my way through a book called "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson.  I have a few things to share.

In 1900, while a theoretical physicist at the University of Berlin, and at the "somewhat advanced age of forty-two," Max Planck unveiled a new quantum theory.  For those of you who are not into physics, just trust me that the important part to know is that this theory would lay the foundation for modern physics.  When Max Planck published his quantum theory in Germany, it ended up in the same publication, same issue as a paper by Einstein on the physics of fluids in drinking straws.  Hmmm.

But Planck was often unlucky in his life.

"His beloved first wife died early, in 1909, and the younger of his two sons was killed in the First World War.  He also had twin daughters whom he adored.  One died giving birth.  The surviving twin went to look after the baby and fell in love with her sister's husband.  They married and two years later she died in childbirth.  In 1944, when Planck was eighty-five, an Allied bomb fell on his house and he lost everything -- papers, diaries, a lifetime of accumulations.  The following year his surviving son was caught in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and executed."

Now on  the next story.  In 1896, Henri Becquerel in Paris left some uranium salts on a wrapped photographic plate in a drawer.  Some time later, he was surprised to find that the salts had burned an impression in it, as if the plate had been exposed to light.

He turned the matter over to a graduate student for investigation.  Marie Curie had recently immigrated from Poland.  She and her new husband, Pierre, found that these rocks, and others, poured out constant, high amounts of energy.  Marie dubbed the effect "radioactivity."  In the process of their work, the Curies found two new elements.  One they named polonium in honor of her native country, and the other was radium.  In 1903 the Curies and Becquerel were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

Marie Curie would receive a second Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911.  Her oldest daughter, Irene, would be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935, the year after her mother's death.

Radiation is what killed Marie.  She died of leukemia.  Radiation is so harmful and long lasting that even now her papers from the 1890's -- and her cookbooks -- are too dangerous to handle.  Her lab books are kept in lead-lined boxes and those who wish to see them must first dress in protective clothing.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream is a warm ocean current in the Atlantic Ocean.  It begins in the Gulf of Mexico and heads north along the coast of the United States.  It then "makes a sharp right turn toward Europe as it passes Cape Cod."  This quirky description of its path is from the book "The Invention of Air" by Steven Johnson.

The Gulf Stream was first described by Ponce de León in the early 16th century.  The first precise measurement came because of a complaint about the postal system.

In 1769, the Customs Board in Boston made a formal complaint to the British Treasury about the speed of letters arriving from England.  People had noticed that letters going from America to Europe would arrive quicker than the letters going in the opposite direction, and were unhappy about it.  Benjamin Franklin, who was the deputy postmaster general for North America, happened to be in London at the time.  The British authorities brought the complaint to his attention. 

It was a lucky day.  Franklin would turn that postal mystery into one of the great scientific breakthroughs of his career. 

When he was twenty years old, he was traveling back from London, and recorded notes in his journal about the "strange prevalence of gulph weed in the waters of the North Atlantic."  Over the years, he had noticed that passage westward across the Atlantic was slower.  Then, in a letter in 1762 he wrote of the way "the waters mov'd away from the North American Coast towards the coasts of Spain."  He called that flow the "gulph stream."

So when the British Treasury came to him with the complaint of the slow mail delivery, Franklin was quick to suspect the "gulph stream."  He consulted with a seasoned New England mariner, Timothy Folger, and together they prepared a map of the Gulf Stream.  The Folger/Franklin map was the first known chart of the trajectory of the Gulf Stream across the Atlantic, but it was based only on the experience of New England whalers.  In 1775, Franklin took measurements of the temperature of the water along the way as he journeyed from England to America.  He found a wide but shallow river of warm water, often with the weeds from tropical regions. 

Who would have thought that slow mail and science would have anything to do with each other?

Now you have heard something interesting.