Skeleton of 19th-Century British Man Reveals He Wore a Corset

The skeleton of a man aged 20–35 at the time of his death in the early 19th century. His burial was partly destroyed due to construction work that took place before the archaeological excavation of the church cemetery where he was buried. Image credit: J. Moore, BARC, Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford

The Industrial Revolution brought significant development to Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries, but it also increased the risk of diseases like tuberculosis (TB), which spread like wildfire among people living in close quarters in cities. Without a cure, TB was responsible for nearly one-third of all deaths in Britain in the first half of the 19th century. Now, bioarchaeologists are discovering skeletons that show some people lived a long time before the disease killed them. A new study investigates a skeleton of a young man who had tuberculosis in the early 19th century in Wolverhampton, England—and oddly enough, changes to his spine and ribs suggest he may have worn a corset.

Tuberculosis primarily infects the lungs, but it can spread to bone through the bloodstream. The disease tends to concentrate in the vertebrae of the spine, because these bones are near the lungs, and because the pathogen likes the blood cell–producing tissues there. The infection of the spine often results in a hunchback deformity as the vertebrae collapse, known as Pott’s disease.

Since TB couldn’t be cured and often progressed to deform the spine, men and women both wore corsets as an orthopedic device to correct postural issues. Of course, people also wore corsets for reasons of fashion: Women attempted to slim their waists and emphasize their hips and busts, while aristocratic men used them to show off their broad shoulders and narrow waist.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, UK bioarchaeologists Joanna Moore and Jo Buckberry lay out the evidence from this skeleton, which was one of 150 burials excavated from St. Peter’s Collegiate Church overflow cemetery in 2001–2002. The cemetery was in use from 1819–1853; they couldn't pinpoint the time of the man's death any more precisely. His ribs had a weird angle to them on both sides—the result of something compressing them over time. While the vitamin-D deficiency rickets can cause this, there was no other evidence of that disease in his body. The spinous processes of the man’s thoracic vertebrae—those little poky bits you can feel along the midline of your back between your ribs—were also strangely positioned, angling to the left. Both types of bony deformities are consistent with compression from long-term corset use.

But beyond the compression seen in the ribs and mid-spine, Moore and Buckberry found evidence of a life-threatening disease. All of the vertebrae in the man’s lumbar spine in his lower back had been damaged. The destruction was so immense in the first and second lumbar vertebrae that they collapsed and fused together, creating a significant bend in his lower spine. Similar destruction was present in the lower thoracic spine, where the vertebrae meet with the ribs. These destroyed vertebrae are characteristic of Pott’s disease and are almost certainly the result of tuberculosis.

Kyphosis, or bending deformity, of the man's spine (vertebrae T10-L4). Image credit: J. Moore, BARC, Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford

Moore and Buckberry found historical records from Wolverhampton that note that tuberculosis—also known as consumption, because people literally wasted away from the disease—was a significant factor affecting health and causing death in this area in the early 19th century. The rapid industrialization of the city had led to increased levels of air pollution, which in turn contributed to a rise in lung diseases like TB.

So, this young 19th-century British man had tuberculosis and wore a corset. But the skeleton itself does not reveal whether he was a dandy who contracted tuberculosis or a consumptive who didn’t much care for fashion. The skeletal effects of fashionable garments and medical apparatus in men of the time period would be similar. Of course, as anthropologist Rebecca Gibson of American University, whose research deals with social and biological effects of corseting in European women of the 18th and 19th centuries, told mental_floss, "being a dandy and being a consumptive are not mutually exclusive." All that said, the link between TB and corsets is well established through both historical records and skeletal remains, so it is at least probable that this Wolverhampton man contracted TB and corrected his spinal issue with a corset.

From a 19th-century textbook, a depiction of the impact of a corset on the body: "A, the natural position of internal organs. B, when deformed by tight lacing. In this way the liver and the stomach have been forced downward, as seen in the cut." // Public Domain

Perhaps most interesting, though, is that this is actually the first male skeleton ever found to have corset-related changes. Gibson says, "The deformation shown here is consistent with corseting damage seen in female skeletons." Although historical records clearly mention European men wearing corsets, prior to this study, the only skeletons shown to have corset deformities have been female. This lack of evidence may be related to the diminishing popularity of corseting among men in this time period, or it may be related to a lack of systematic study of male skeletons for corseting practices. Regardless of the reason for it, this new finding shows that bioarchaeologists should consider chucking gendered assumptions when looking at skeletons for corset wearing.

What began as Moore’s student project on a skeleton curated by the Biological Archaeology Research Centre at the University of Bradford may now change the way bioarchaeologists look at the bodies of men from 18th to 19th century Europe. Now that we know that corseting evidence can be found on men’s bodies, more studies of this kind will increase our understanding of both Victorian medical practice and men’s fashion.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

A New Analysis of Chopin's Heart Reveals the Cause of His Death

For years, experts and music lovers alike have speculated over what caused celebrated composer Frederic Chopin to die at the tragically young age of 39. Following a recent examination of his heart, Polish scientists have concluded that Chopin succumbed to tuberculosis, just as his death certificate states, according to The New York Times.

When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, where he had lived, while his heart was transported to his home city of Warsaw, Poland. Chopin—who appeared to have been ill with tuberculosis (TB)—was terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, and nostalgic for his national roots. He asked for his heart to be cut out, and his sister later smuggled it past foreign guards and into what is now Poland.

Preserved in alcohol—likely cognac—and stored in a crystal jar, Chopin's heart was laid to rest inside Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. (It was removed by the Germans in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, and later returned.) But rumors began to swirl, as the same doctor tasked with removing the heart had also conducted an autopsy on the composer's body, according to the BBC.

The physician's original notes have been lost, but it's said he concluded that Chopin had died not from TB but from "a disease not previously encountered." This triggered some scholars to theorize that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis, or even a form of emphysema, as the sickly musician suffered from chronic respiratory issues. Another suspected condition was mitral stenosis, or a narrowing of the heart valves.

Adhering to the wishes of a living relative, the Polish church and government have refused to let scientists conduct genetic tests on Chopin's heart. But over the years, teams have periodically checked up on the organ to ensure it remains in good condition, including once in 1945.

In 2014, a group of Chopin enthusiasts—including Polish scientists, religious officials, and members of the Chopin Institute, which researches and promotes Chopin's legacy—were given the go-ahead to hold a clandestine evening meeting at Holy Cross Church. There, they removed Chopin's heart from its perch inside a stone pillar to inspect it for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Fearing the jar's alcohol would evaporate, the group added hot wax to its seal and took more than 1000 photos of its contents. Pictures of the surreptitious evening procedure weren't publicly released, but were shown to the AP, which described Chopin's preserved heart as "an enlarged white lump."

It's unclear what prompted a follow-up investigation on Chopin's heart, or who allowed it, but an early version of an article in the American Journal of Medicine states that experts—who did not open the jar—have newly observed that the famed organ is "massively enlarged and floppy," with lesions and a white, frosted appearance. These observations have prompted them to diagnose the musician's cause of death as pericarditis, which is an inflammation of tissue around the heart. This likely stemmed from his tuberculosis, they said.

Some scientists might still clamor at the prospect of testing tissue samples of Chopin's heart. But Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences—who was involved in this latest examination—told The Guardian that it was unnecessary to disturb what many consider to be a symbol of national pride.

"Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition," Witt said. "That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart, and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

[h/t The New York Times]


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