The Bone Collector
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Hamann-Todd Osteological Collection. We pay it a visit.
Laura Dempsey, Cleveland Museum of Natural History
One hundred years ago, when Thomas Wingate Todd arrived from England to become chair of anatomy at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, he seized upon a compelling opportunity. The year before, Ohio had passed legislation (drafted in part by Carl Hamann, who was to become dean of the medical school) that allowed medical schools to receive cadavers otherwise destined for a potter’s field. Todd took advantage of the law to begin building a collection of bones and detailed records that would have a profound influence on medical science.
By the time of Todd’s death in 1938, the collection contained meticulous records and more than 3,000 skeletons. It also included fossil casts of early man and a rare compilation of X-rays from pioneering child bone growth studies that Todd conducted. In the 1950s and early ’60s, the collection—now called the Hamann-Todd Osteological Collection—was transferred piecemeal on permanent loan to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
All of the skeletons in the assemblage are accompanied by information that includes name (or alias), age, sex, ethnicity, cause of death, and more than 70 anthropomorphic measurements. Files also contain stereoscopic photographs and X-rays made before the remaining flesh was removed from the bones, along with the results of autopsies or dissections.
According to Kevin F. Kern, an associate professor of history at the University of Akron who has written extensively about Todd, more researchers visit the collection annually than all other museum bone collections combined. More than 1,000 scholarly publications have been based on research that used the Hamann-Todd skeletons.
Investigators include orthopedic specialists who take comparative measurements for prosthetic designs and midwives who examine pelvic shapes as potential obstacles to birthing. “Medical researchers are attracted by the opportunity to examine a large range of variation in the human species and to reference the extensive scientific documentation,” says Lyman Jellema, physical anthropology collections manager. He estimates a minimum of 20 visits per month.
The museum has received funding to photograph and digitize all of the collection’s photos and X-rays. Jellema plans to add them to the museum’s Website not only to protect the physical specimens, but also to provide easier access for researchers—extending Todd’s influence a century on.