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.

New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
Essential Science
How Are Vaccines Made?
Quality checks on the Salk polio vaccine at Glaxo's virus research laboratory in Buckinghamshire, UK, in January 1956.
Quality checks on the Salk polio vaccine at Glaxo's virus research laboratory in Buckinghamshire, UK, in January 1956.
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

Vaccines have long been hailed as one of our greatest public health achievements. They can be made to protect us from infections with either viral or bacterial microbes. Measles and smallpox, for example, are viruses; Streptococcus pneumoniae is a bacterium that causes a range of diseases, including pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, and meningitis. Hundreds of millions of illnesses and deaths have been prevented due to vaccines that eradicated smallpox and significantly reduced polio and measles infections. However, some misunderstanding remains regarding how vaccines are made, and why some scary-sounding ingredients [PDF] are included in the manufacturing process.

The production of our vaccines has greatly evolved since the early days, when vaccination was potentially dangerous. Inoculating an individual with ground-up smallpox scabs usually led to a mild infection (called "variolation"), and protected them from acquiring the disease the "regular" way (via the air). But there was always a chance the infection could still be severe. When Edward Jenner introduced the first true vaccination with cowpox, protection from smallpox became safer, but there were still issues: The cowpox material could be contaminated with other germs, and sometimes was transmitted from one vaccinated person to another, leading to the inadvertent spread of blood-borne pathogens. We’ve come far in the last 200 years.

There are different kinds of vaccines, and each requires different processes to move from the laboratory to your physician's office. The key to all of them is production of one or more antigens—the portion of the microbe that triggers a host immune response.


There are several methods to produce antigens. One common technique is to grow a virus in what's called a cell culture. Typically grown in large vats called bioreactors, living cells are inoculated with a virus and placed in a liquid growth medium that contains nutrients—proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, essential minerals—that help the virus grow in the cells, producing thousands of copies of itself in each infected cell. At this stage the virus is also getting its own dose of protective medicine: antibiotics like neomycin or polymyxin B, which prevent bacterial and fungal contamination that could kill the cells serving as hosts for the virus.

Once a virus completes its life cycle in the host cell, the viruses are purified by separating them from the host cells and growth media, which are discarded. This is often done using several different types of filters; the viruses are small and can pass through holes in the filter that trap larger host cells and cell debris.

This is how "live attenuated vaccines" are created. These vaccines contain viruses that have been modified so that they are no longer harmful to humans. Some of them are grown for many generations in cells that aren't human, such as chicken cells, so that they have mutated to no longer cause harm to humans. Others, like the influenza nasal mist, were grown at low temperatures until they lost the ability to replicate in the warmer temperatures of the lungs. Many of these vaccines you were probably given as a child: measles, mumps, rubella ("German measles"), and chickenpox.

Live attenuated vaccines replicate briefly in the body, triggering a strong—and long-lasting—response from your immune system. Because your immune system kicks into high gear at what it perceives to be a major threat, you need fewer doses of the vaccine for protection against these diseases. And unlike the harmful form of the virus, it is extremely unlikely (because they only replicate at low levels) that these vaccines will cause the host to develop the actual disease, or to spread it to other contacts. One exception is the live polio vaccine, which could spread to others and, extremely rarely, caused polio disease (approximately one case of polio from 3 million doses of the virus). For this reason, the live polio virus was discontinued in the United States in 2000.

Scientists use the same growth technique for what are known as "killed" or "inactivated" vaccines, but they add an extra step: viral death. Inactivated viruses are killed, typically via heat treatment or use of a chemical such as formaldehyde, which modifies the virus's proteins and nucleic acids and renders the virus unable to replicate. Inactivated vaccines include Hepatitis A, the injected polio virus, and the flu shot.

A dead virus can't replicate in your body, obviously. This means that the immune response to inactivated vaccines isn't as robust as it is with live attenuated vaccines; replication by the live viruses alerts many different types of your immune cells of a potential invader, while killed vaccines primarily alert only one part of your immune system (your B cells, which produce antibodies). That's why you need more doses to achieve and maintain immunity.

While live attenuated vaccines were the primary way to make vaccines until the 1960s, concerns about potential safety issues, and the difficulty of making them, mean that few are attempting to develop new live attenuated vaccines today.


Other vaccines aren't made of whole organisms at all, but rather bits and pieces of a microbe. The combination vaccine that protects against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus—all at once—is one example. This vaccine is called the DTaP for children, and Tdap for adults. It contains toxins (the proteins that cause disease) from diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus bacteria that have been inactivated by chemicals. (The toxins are called "toxoids" once inactivated.) This protects the host—a.k.a. you, potentially—from developing clinical diphtheria and tetanus disease, even if you are exposed to the microorganisms. (Some viruses have toxins—Ebola appears to, for example—but they're not the key antigens, so they're not used for our current vaccines.)

As they do when developing live attenuated or inactivated vaccines, scientists who create these bacterial vaccines need some target bacteria to culture. But because the bacteria don't need a host cell to grow, they can be produced in simple nutrient broths by vaccine manufacturers. The toxins are then separated from the rest of the bacteria and growth media and inactivated for use as vaccines.

Similarly, some vaccines contain just a few antigens from a bacterial species. Vaccines for Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae type B, and Neisseria meningitidis all use sugars that are found on the outer part of the bacteria as antigens. These sugars are purified from the bacteria and then bound to another protein to enhance the immune response. The protein helps to recruit T cells in addition to B cells and create a more robust reaction.

Finally, we can also use genetic engineering to produce vaccines. We do this for Hepatitis B, a virus that can cause severe liver disease and liver cancer. The vaccine for it consists of a single antigen: the hepatitis B surface antigen, which is a protein on the outside of the virus. The gene that makes this antigen is inserted into yeast cells; these cells can then be grown in a medium similar to bacteria and without the need for cell culture. The hepatitis B surface antigen is then separated from the yeast and serves as the primary vaccine component.


Once you have the live or killed viruses, or purified antigens, sometimes chemicals need to be added to protect the vaccine or to make it work better. Adjuvants, such as aluminum salts, are a common additive; they help enhance the immune response to some antigens by keeping the antigen in contact with the cells of the immune system for a longer period of time. Vaccines for DTaP/Tdap, meningitis, pneumococcus, and hepatitis B all use aluminum salts as an adjuvant.

Other chemicals may be added as stabilizers, to help keep the vaccine working effectively even in extreme conditions (such as hot temperatures). Stabilizers can include sugars or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Preservatives can be added to prevent microbial growth in the finished product.

For many years, the most common preservative was a compound called thimerosal, which is 50 percent ethylmercury by weight. Ethylmercury doesn't stick around; your body quickly eliminates it via the gut and feces. (This is different from methylmercury, which accumulates in fish and can, at high doses, cause long-lasting damage in humans.) In 2001, thimerosal was removed from the vaccines given in childhood due to consumer concerns, but many studies have demonstrated its safety.

Finally, the vaccine is divided into vials for shipping to physicians, hospitals, public health departments, and some pharmacies. These can be single-dose or multi-dose vials, which can be used for multiple patients as long as they're prepared and stored away from patient treatment areas. Preservatives are important for multi-dose vials: bacteria and fungi are very opportunistic, and multiple uses increase the potential for contamination of the vaccine. This is why thimerosal is still used in some multi-dose influenza vaccines.

Though some of the vaccine ingredients sound worrisome, most of these chemicals are removed during multiple purification steps, and those that remain (such as adjuvants) are necessary for the vaccine's effectiveness, are present in very low levels, and have an excellent track record of safety.


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