Anatomical Collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine

I am about to begin the second year of my master’s degree at Mississippi State University in their Applied Anthropology program with a focus in bioarchaeology. My thesis research will involve histological analysis of remains from an early 20th century asylum cemetery in Jackson, Mississippi in order to observe changes in bone structure associated with malnutrition. For eight weeks this summer, I am interning with the anatomical collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, working with histology slides and associated records from the Ellis R. Kerley collection. Kerley was a physical anthropologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) during the late 1950s and 1960s who, while at the institute, conducted multiple studies into the microscopic changes that occur in bone as a result of age and nutritional status. It was during his tenure at the AFIP that Kerley published his 1965 study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology titled “The Microscopic Determination of Age in Human Bone”. This study forms the foundation for current histological aging studies on human remains both in forensic and archaeological contexts. In addition to materials from his aging study on human bone, the Kerley collection houses records and slides from similar studies on bone age and malnutrition in non-human primates.

Under the supervision of Dr. Franklin Damann, the anatomical collections curator, and Brian Spatola, the anatomical collections manager, I am helping to compile, inventory, and organize the materials in the Kerley collection. At the same time, I am helping to compose the museum’s finding aid for future researchers. I will also be helping set up the museum’s histology equipment in their laboratory space. Because my research will rely heavily on histology, I am able to analyze femur and rib thin sections under an imaging microscope, becoming familiar with different methods for histological age estimation. This experience is allowing me to develop my own thesis methods. Outside of my set tasks with the Kerley Collection, I have been given the opportunity to practice taking cranial measurements on multiple skulls in the anatomical collection at the museum, which is a skill set that will benefit me during my graduate career.

My time at the museum is beneficial for enhancing my studies in bioarchaeology and paleopathology as well as for developing my thesis research methods. The opportunity to work with the collections also exposes me to another aspect of anthropology that I am becoming interested in: museum studies. Overall, I am greatly benefitting from my experiences here at the museum while completing tasks that in turn benefit the anatomical collections and the museum.

Michelle Davenport

Bioarchaeology Graduate Student


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