“Studying mummies adds a crucial dimension of time to our understanding of diseases and their role in shaping human biology and history,” he said. “Mummies give us information about the evolution of disease. . . . It’s important that we don’t think of disease as a static thing.”
Zimmerman originally envisioned a more traditional medical career, but his plans changed in 1969, when he was working at what was then called the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, he met a medical student who had a passion for mummies.
The student had once tried to dissect what he had been told was a 3,000-year-old mummy from Egypt, but it turned out to be a fake, Zimmerman said: “There was a 1898 copy of the Milwaukee Journal stuffed inside.”
A wealth of information
The medical student never solved the mystery of who created the phony mummy, but he did manage to acquire a real one, this time from the Smithsonian, and he asked Zimmerman to lead the autopsy. This one was the real deal. It had come from the Aleutian Islands and dated back 200 to 300 years. It was customary during that period for the Aleut people to mummify the dead by putting them in caves with vents of hot gas that naturally desiccated them. Getting rid of the water inhibits the growth of bacteria that cause bodies to decay, he said.
When you autopsy a fresh body, the color and hardness of tissues give information on disease, but in this case everything was brown and hard. So Zimmerman cut out the organs and made thin sections from them, rehydrated them and examined them under a microscope.
The body, he said, was that of a middle-aged man. Zimmerman could see that a lobe in one of the lungs had been infected with bacteria. He’d died of Klebsiella pneumonia, a disease that today can strike street people and alcoholics exposed to cold. There were abscesses in the kidneys and heart as well. The man’s bacterial killer had been mummified along with him.
Zimmerman was intrigued, realizing that mummies held an untapped wealth of information about the evolution of human disease and human history. He decided to get a doctorate in anthropology so he could be the person called in to examine mummies everywhere. It took 10 years to get there, he said, but it worked. Now, while officially linked to Villanova University near Philadelphia, he has traveled the world to examine mummies at the request of museums, university professors and legal authorities. When an old-looking preserved body turns up, there’s almost always a mystery to solve, he said: Who was this person, and what caused his death?