If these bones could talk…

By Dr. Carlina De la Cova, University of South Carolina

Left to Right: Cameron Clarke, Dr. Fatimah Jackson, Dr. Carlina De la Cova, Jessie Tompkins

The human skeleton can tell us much about a person’s past. Whilst serving as the framework of our bodies, the skeleton also records important events in our life histories, including periods of poor health, disease, and malnutrition. Understanding how to read these events, and the subsequent pathologies they produce in human bones, allows us to better comprehend health and the relationship between health, race, and social status. As a skeletal biologist and paleopathologist, my work does this. Since 2006, my research program has focused on skeletal health disparities amongst African Americans and Euro-Americans who were born during the Antebellum, Civil War (1861-1865), and Reconstruction (1866-1877) eras and lived into the early 20th century to determine the impact enslavement, liberation, industrialization, migration, and urbanization had on African American salubrity.  This summer myself (University of South Carolina) and my research team, comprised of Dr. Antonio de la Cova (University of South Carolina) and Jessica Tompkins, MA (Indiana University, Bloomington) spent the month of June and most of July studying the impact of these events on individuals in the William Montague Cobb Anatomical Collection. 

The Cobb Collection was started by Dr. William Montague Cobb in 1932 and originally included the skeletal remains of 978 mostly unclaimed African American individuals that died in public hospitals, almshouses, charity clinics, and mental institutions in Washington, D.C., between 1932 and 1969. The Cobb Collection is the first, and only anatomical collection, established by an African American scientist for the purpose of researching the Black past and refuting the popular and controversial scientific beliefs about African Americans during Dr. Cobb’s lifetime. 

My research with the collection began in 2006, when I examined 90 males. For this return visit, 72 females were analyzed. Numerous pathologies were observed. Some individuals had broken bones and evidence of poorly healed fractures that had not been properly set. One person also had a fracture that got infected but later healed, as evidenced by osteomyelitis. Many women had benign hyperostosis frontalis internal, or thickening of the interior skull. There were also infectious diseases present, including tuberculosis and tertiary syphilis. Tuberculosis was so severe in some persons that the disease destroyed part of the spinal column and resulted in severe spinal deformities consistent with Pott’s Disease. Individuals with syphilis had limb disfigurements associated with expansion of the lower leg bones. Padget’s disease, a metabolic disorder, was also present and resulted in thickening and expansion of the facial, limb, and hip bones. One individual died from uterine cancer, which had metastasized to the pelvis and vertebrae. Septic, osteo, and rheumatoid arthritis were also observed. Perhaps most telling were bowed bone malformations associated with childhood rickets or vitamin D deficiency.

The disorders and diseases present suggest that the individuals in the Cobb Collection lived challenging lives. Examination of census and morgue records indicated that most were from Blue Plains, or the Home for the Aged and Infirm, a long-term care facility for the indigent elderly. Most of the individuals studied died impoverished and thus truly represent the poorest denizens of the District at the time period, as other researchers have pointed out. Improperly healed fractures suggest accidental injuries or evidence or interpersonal violence. That these broken bones were not properly set implies limited access to health care or a cultural mistrust of doctors. The presence of healed rickets indicates poor childhood nutrition, which may have been the result of the stresses associated with enslavement or Reconstruction. 

The infections and communicable diseases observed illustrate the impact of an urban environment, especially for those marginalized to poor housing with limited access to health care. It is interesting to note that African Americans in the present day still suffer from higher rates of tuberculosis when compared to their white counterparts. The Cobb Collection has the potential to shed further light on this persistent health disparity.    

    Historical research is being performed on each individual examined in this study so that more can be learned about the Cobb Collection, who the people were that comprise it, and the impact the collection, and the people within it, will have in better understanding the Black past through the lens of health, social marginalization, and biology. ****