KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology

Studying Mummies: Giving Life to a Dry Subject

Michael R. Zimmerman, M.D., Ph.D.

Professor Michael Zimmerman

Dr. Zimmerman is Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, Adjunct Professor of Biology at Villanova University, USA, and Visiting Professor at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, The University of Manchester, where he has donated his collection of mummy material and teaches a palaeopathology course.

He is a collaborator on a Wellcome Trust funded research project by the KNH Centre and the Natural History Museum, London: Sir Grafton Elliot Smith and the Archaeological Survey of Nubia: their significance to the palaeopathological tradition.

His most recent publication is: David, AR and MR Zimmerman. 2010. Cancer: A new disease, an old disease, or something in between? Nature Reviews Cancer, 10:728-733. Invited paper.


Michael R. Zimmerman, M.D., Ph.D.
The Natural History Museum, London on 28th August 2012

Start time 6.30pm, finish by 8.30pm

Palaeopathology, the study of disease in ancient remains, adds the crucial dimension of time to improve our understanding of the evolution of diseases and their role in human biological and social history. Mummies examined by X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) and standard post mortem studies hold a great potential for palaeopathological examination. After rehydration, microscopic preparations provide diagnoses of many conditions with a considerable degree of confidence and accuracy.


For most people, mummies mean those from Egypt. However, mummies are found in many areas of the world, including South America and the Arctic. Studies of these mummies have led to improvement in our understanding of the history of congenital, infectious, cardiovascular and neoplastic diseases. Ongoing studies of mummies will be facilitated by the development of new technology. Future advances in palaeoserology may allow the detection of antibodies to pathogenic microorganisms, while improvements in DNA detection are already expanding our knowledge of the history and evolution of diseases. Enhancements in nuclear magnetic resonance technology have allowed the examination of mummies without the need for rehydration. Gas chromatography mass spectrometry has been used in the study of ancient Egyptian embalming materials. Such advances can also facilitate a look back at studies in the past. The University of Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology and the Natural History Museum, London, are reexamining the 20,000 specimens collected during the Archeological Survey of Nubia in the early 20th century.

The palaeopathological study of mummies expands our knowledge of the life stories and fate of ancient individuals, their relationship to others, ancient migrations, the evolution of disease, and the role of ancient disease in human evolution and social history, as well as applications to modern medicine and implications for health in the modern world.

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