Because of its pale color, the prominent Greek physician and philosopher Galen wrote that bone was made of sperm. One thousand years later, Avicenna, a Persian astronomer, physician, and prolific writer, thought that bone was made of earth because it was cold and dry. Now another millennium later, different notions prevail about the nature of bone. We have to start with a little organic chemistry. Don’t glaze over. This is more interesting that it might seem at first. Read more
The previous post recounted the unlikely but accepted fossil find of Charles Dawson near his home in Piltdown, England. British paleoanthropologists wanted to believe that the “Piltdown man” was the missing link in human evolution. Mr. P was also widely celebrated in popular culture. He was a rock star. Dawson wanted to be one too.
Skepticism about the fossils’ authenticity, however, came early and in several forms. The fragmented and limited skeletal pieces were missing their most diagnostic portions. (Some said, “How convenient.”) Also, was the gravel bed where Dawson found the fossils as ancient as he indicated, or were the fossils from a more recent era? Were the jaw and cranial fragments from the same species? From the same individual? Read more
Nobody would likely appreciate having the words hoax and fraud permanently associated with the name of their hometown. Yet in 1908, the discovery of some bone fragments and teeth left local residents of the English village of Piltdown helpless as nationalism, tunnel vision, and wishful thinking hoodwinked the specialists who pondered the findings’ significance. These bones certainly have much to teach, but not, as it turns out, about the discovery of a missing link in the evolution of man.
Since bone decays far more slowly than other human tissues, obtaining burial space in densely populated areas eventually becomes problematic. Historically in European cultures, individuals of high standing were buried within the church, others nearby outside. Those plots, however, were only rented, sometimes for a little as 20 years. After that, making space in the boneyard for the newly deceased necessitated removal of old skeletons. So the old bones were exhumed, sorted, stacked, and stored compactly in underground crypts or catacombs. Read more
Every natural history and anthropological museum in the world seems to have a skeletal replica of Lucy, our 3.2 million year-old human predecessor. The discovery of her bones and close study of their shapes have provided a crucial observation regarding human development. Lucy proves that our ancient ancestors first stood up and walked, and only later did they develop large brains. This was a monumental observation, widely discussed.
My monumental observation, kept to myself until now, did not require any close study but did lead to unsettling questions. Five ribs, not twelve? Only one finger and one toe? Half a pelvis? Lucy, how could you walk with less then one leg? Read more
The previous post describes Englishman John Charnley’s early efforts, mostly failures, to develop a total hip replacement. Although a patient’s squeaking artificial hip, which annoyed his wife, motivated Charnley to do better, finding the right material from which to make the cup component continued to elude him.
One day in 1962, not too long after Charnley recognized the shortcomings of PTFE (Teflon), a salesman stopped by Charnley’s hospital selling plastic gears, which came from Germany and were being introduced into machinery used in the weaving industry. He left a chunk of the little-known specialized plastic, polyethylene, an extremely hard and dense form, with the hospital’s supply officer, who passed it on to Charnley’s lab director. The investigator began immediately to test its wear properties even though Charnley’s initial response, after digging his thumb into it, was that the lab director was wasting his time. After 24/7 testing over three weeks, however, the material showed less wear than the PTFE had shown in one day. Charnley noted later, “We were on.”
For millennia, many people lucky enough to survive into their 60s and 70s have developed wear-and-tear arthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis. When this type of aging occurs in fingers, the joints became stiff and knobby and perhaps painful, but with ten digits on two hands and neither hand having the duty to bear body weight, people seem to manage. The state of affairs has always been quite different, however, if the disease affects the hips and grinds away the cartilage there. Read more
What do 30 million American bison, the completion of the transcontinental railroad, and the discovery of superphosphate fertilizer have in common? A lot, as it turns out. In 1868 they became critical elements in the formation of an entire industry, one that thrived for over 20 years. It helped finance the settlement of the Great Plains, ensured solvency of numerous new railroad lines servicing the settlers, and provided vital fertilizer for crops across the entire continent. Read more
Bone buttons made and sold in large quantities appeared in the 13th Century. It is not clear whether any of the button manufacturers themselves became wealthy, but somebody was getting rich, because a market developed for small “caskets”—actually jewelry boxes—that were most often given as engagement gifts. Here the betrothed could keep her gems, love letters, and other precious items. Read more
In the 19th Century, women wore corsets cinched so tightly that they distorted their rib cages and forced their abdominal organs into their chests. It was certainly not comfortable or healthy, but it was the price many paid for stylish, wasp-like waists. “Whalebone” stays in the corsets contributed to the effect, but the stays were not bone, rather they were the same flexible connective tissue that constitutes our hair and nails. Read more