The Calvin Wells Palaeopathology Archive

Archives Hub feature for October 2018

Calvin Wells examining a human skull in his office
Calvin Wells examining a human skull in his office at White Horse Cottage, Hapton, Norfolk, c.1970. The University of Bradford, Bradford [Catalogue no. CAL/11/32].
Calvin Percival Bamflyde Wells (1908-1978) was a pioneer in the study of disease in archaeological skeletal remains, otherwise known as palaeopathology. A qualified medical doctor who spoke several languages Wells’ publications continue to be cited by researchers and academics working across a range of disciplines, including bioarchaeology, anthropology and the history of medicine. In 2017 the University of Bradford received a Wellcome Trust Research Resources grant to catalogue Wells’ archive of writings, research material and correspondence. One of the most significant parts of the collection relate to Wells’ skeletal reports, which document his analysis of excavated human remains from archaeological sites around the world.

Archaeological skulls featuring typically male and female traits, c.1970.
Archaeological skulls featuring typically male and female traits, c.1970. The University of Bradford, Bradford [Catalogue no. CAL/11/18].
Upon his retirement from medicine at the age of 55 Wells started to study palaeopathology full-time, and soon became the United Kingdom’s leading authority on the subject. Working out of his cottage in rural Norfolk Wells received specimens by post which he examined on his kitchen table, or weather depending, garden. A consummate professional Wells offered an efficient service though insisted that he was paid for his reports, and preferably published in a noteworthy journal. Among Wells’ clients were many distinguished archaeologists, such as Glyn Daniel, Sonia Chadwick-Hawkes, Cecil Hackett, and Charles and Barbara Green. Aside from his first and most impactful book Bones, Bodies and Disease, Wells’ most influential work remains the 120 skeletal reports he produced between 1965 and 1978. A biography of Wells in the Global History of Palaeopathology notes that:

“Calvin Wells’ skeletal reports are remembered for two reasons: the data presentation is meticulously executed and useful to bioarchaeologists today, and his interpretation for the evidence of disease are fascinating and creative, if not necessarily scientifically supported”

The extent of Wells’ dedication to the scientific method is revealed in the archive material, which includes handwritten notes, tables and graphs alongside photographs and radiographs of bone specimens. Almost paradoxically Wells combined a clinical approach to palaeopathological examination with an imaginative, if eccentric, manner in interpreting causes of injury and death in ancient people. For those familiar with Wells’ skeletal reports it would not be surprising to learn that he wrote a considerable amount of short fiction in his spare time. A fascination with the romantic and tragic bled into Wells’ skeletal reports, which has since left an indelible mark on his scientific bibliography.

Extract from a skeletal report 'Report on some Bronze Age human remains, Methwold', c.1955.
Extract from a skeletal report ‘Report on some Bronze Age human remains, Methwold’, c.1955. The University of Bradford, Bradford [Catalogue no .CAL/1/1/1/31].
One example among many which show Wells’ imaginative reading of skeletal remains is a 1963 report title The Human Skeleton from Cox Lane, Ipswich. The report contains Wells’ scientifically sound analysis of male skeleton in his early thirties with six injuries caused by blunt force trauma. It is only when Wells’ attempts to “deduce the probable sequence leading to the man’s death” that he veers into the realms of fiction. In this instance Wells concocts a scenario wherein the victim is pulled from horseback by two assailants before being gruesomely stabbed by a third. Wells concludes that the victim was:

“A young, vigorous energetic man who had probably led a not unadventurous life and finally died in some blood foray fighting desperately and it would seem not ingloriously”

While intriguing, this narrative does not hold up to scientific scrutiny, and there are many similar instances of Wells subjugating objective facts and the historical record to salacious invention. In consideration of these various faults, to what extent are Wells’ skeletal reports valuable for contemporary researchers in bioarchaeology?

Research slides from Wells' research on Paget’s disease, c.1970
Research slides from Wells’ research on Paget’s disease, c.1970 The University of Bradford, Bradford [Catalogue no. CAL/11/1].
As with all pioneers in unexplored disciplines, Wells was prone to deviation and false starts on his journey to new discoveries. For example Wells was among the first palaeopathologists to undertake serious examination of cremated skeletal remains, revealing that it was possible to ascertain age, sex and, in some cases, pathological change with some degree of certainty in charred bone. Wells was also the first to introduce the important concept of pseduopathology, which states that the appearance of disease may be caused by other factors such as bacteria, soil erosion, wildlife and the excavation process itself. Additionally Wells authored several significant reports which examined leprosy, Paget’s disease and Harris lines in archaeological human remains. Wells is also credited for reintroducing the use of radiography in palaeopathological examination.

Selection of research material from Calvin Wells' collaboration with the pioneering archaeologist Gerald Dunning, 1964
Selection of research material from Calvin Wells’ collaboration with the pioneering archaeologist Gerald Dunning, 1964 [Catalogue no. CAL/6/4/24].
The fact that citations of Wells’ bone reports in scientific and academic journals have increased in the forty years since his death are a testament to their enduring value. In the process of cataloguing his archive we have discovered the depth of research and preparation Wells invested in every single skeletal report. As a result of the cataloguing project, contemporary researchers can now access Wells’ original research material providing an opportunity to form improved or revised conclusions about the specimens he examined. In addition to unlocking the research potential of Wells’ archive, the cataloguing project has unveiled a lot about the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Palaeopathology’s’ enigmatic life and personality. Although forthright and resolute in his opinions, Wells by no means thought himself as completely infallible. As he was keen to remind scholars attempting to diagnose disease in the remains of the past:

 “When we remember the many ways in which a pseudopathological appearance can be produced – or a genuine lesion obscured – it no longer seems extraordinary that palaeopathologists occasionally make a wrong diagnosis. The wonder is that we ever make a right one”.

James Neill
Project Archivist – Calvin Wells Collection
Information Services
University of Bradford

 Bibliography

Bones, Bodies and Disease by Calvin Wells (London: Thames & Hudson, 1964)

‘Pseudopathology’ by Dr. Calvin Wells ‘Diseases in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diseases, Injuries, and Surgery of Early Populations’ Edited by Don Brothwell Springfield, Illinois: C.C. Thomas (1967)

‘Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908–1978)’ by Charlotte Roberts and Keith Manchester ‘The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects‘ Edited by Jane Buikstra and Charlotte Roberts New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2012)

‘Crooked Timber: The life of Calvin Wells (1908-1978)’ by Tony Waldron in Journal of Medical Biography (May 2014)

Related

The Calvin Wells Palaeopathology Archive, 1953-1984

Browse all University of Bradford Special Collections on the Archives Hub.

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The Nuclear Disarmament Symbol Sketches, March 2017

The PaxCat Project: bringing peace archives to life, 2010

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