Calliphon.

Possible Calliphon Image
Calvin Wells a.k.a. Calliphon

Between 1953 and 1969 Calvin Wells wrote numerous columns for the Eastern Daily Press under the nom de plume ‘Calliphon’. Wells was a well-known physician of high social standing in East Anglia and it is possible he found greater freedom of expression writing through a pseudonym. Although many readers wrote letters of enquiry, Calliphon never revealed his true identity or the origin of the name. One correspondent who came closest to guessing was local artist and yachtsman G. Coleman Green who wrote

 “After some consideration I concluded I should approach the Muse in a masculine form, perhaps a man from Knossos or Greece itself.”

Given his fascination with the art and literature of antiquity it would seem fitting that Wells was inspired by a figure from Ancient Greece. The Historical Dictionary of Greek Philosophy gives the biographies of two prominent individuals named ‘Calliphon’. The first was a philosopher from 2 BC who is most closely associated with the Peripatetic school. There is little information about this Calliphon though Cicero condemned him several times for ‘making the chief good of man to consist in a union of virtue and bodily pleasure’. Despite being renowned for having a cheeky sense of humour, it is unlikely this particular Calliphon was admired by Wells. It seems more appropriate that it was Calliphon of Croton, a Pythagorean  physician and ‘man of great civic importance’, whom Wells sought to emulate. However it is also possible that as a linguist Wells appreciated the combination of the Greek word ‘Kali’ or Calli, meaning ‘good’, and Phon’, meaning ‘voice’ or ‘sound’. In essence Wells perhaps conceived ‘Calliphon’ to be a good or trusted voice for the people of Norfolk.

Taming a Hare

Initially Calliphon wrote lighthearted anecdotes and musings on family life in sections called ‘The Country Scene’ and ‘Norfolk Miscellanies’. These articles have a literary quality, and tell tales of Calliphon exploring abandoned castles with his children and training a wild hare to be a family pet. In one such article titled ‘Daddy, Is It True?’ Calliphon discusses the ethical and philosophical aspects of deceiving children about Santa Claus.

Santa Claus
Calliphon on the truth about Santa Claus

In every article Calliphon sought to impart some form of practical wisdom or advice, and he became popular with readers. Eastern Daily Press editor Stanley Bagwell encouraged Wells (only he knew Calliphon’s true identity) to tackle more serious subject matter and also to incorporate his medical expertise. At a time when the NHS was in its infancy and medical information relatively scarce, Calliphon provided informed analysis of important public health issues. In one such article ‘Doctors and the Vaccine’, Calliphon considers the debates surrounding the first mass polio vaccination programme in 1955. In judging the mood among the nation’s parents Calliphon writes ‘The Ministry of Health urges us to go; natural caution inclines many of us to hold back’. Without dictating to readers Calliphon argues that ‘despite all my cavilling, doctors do a sight more good than harm’ and after much ‘heart-searching’ concludes vaccination to be necessary.

Smoking Cancer edit
Annotation on Calliphon’s rejected smoking article

On other matters relating to public health Calliphon’s opinion was not always appreciated. In an article titled ‘Smoking and Cancer’ he discusses the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, which ‘only a generation ago was a rare disease’. Like most people at the time, even many in the medical profession, Calliphon was undecided about the connection. He wrote ‘whether the puzzle will be solved in our own lifetime or in centuries no-one can tell’. In the meantime Calliphon advises that ‘we must deny ourselves the solace of the cordial weed or puff it at our peril’. The article in question was left unpublished as it was deemed by Bagwell to be ‘too sombre for sombre times’.

This is not to say that the Eastern Daily Press shied away from printing Calliphon’s coverage of more alarming global events, such as the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. In an article titled ‘Brainwashing’, Calliphon delved into the various brainwashing techniques adopted by the Soviet regime to suppress dissenting political opposition. In the writer’s belief, a close examination of Communist brainwashing methods is ‘the best way of resisting its subtle attack’. Whilst Calliphon concedes that such advice may not be applicable to the average Norwich citizen, he warns that ‘the 20th century has shown that it cannot be trusted to leave the most idyllic places undefiled’.

Brainwashing Edit.jpg
‘Brainwashing’ (1956)

It was when writing about subjects related to Norwich and the Norfolk area that Calliphon received the greatest feedback from readers. This is most evident in his readers’ reaction to the etymological essay Norfolk Place-Names. In the article Calliphon declares that the village name of ‘Wormegay stole my heart away’ and goes on to discuss the rich variety of Norfolk place-names and their origins.

Norfolk Names
‘Norfolk Place-Names’ (1955)

However, it is the article’s blithe assumption that ‘most people can work out that Horsford means the ford of the horses’ which caused some to write in. Mr. John F.E. Alpe of Norwich argued:

“As for Horsford being a horse ford, if a horse could not cross, it would not be a ford. Horsford together with Horsham St. Faith and Horstead received their names from the little river Hor, or more correctly the Hor Beck.”

Norfolk Names Letter.jpg
Calliphon’s retort to a critical reader

Naturally Calliphon contested Alpe’s point and the debate played out for days on the letters  Eastern Daily Press. It culminated in an interjection by the linguist Dr. O.K. Schram of Edinburgh University in support of Calliphon’s original assertion. A similar article on the origin of Norfolk pub names proved less controversial. In this area Calliphon admitted that he was not a true expert as it “would need years of bibulous devotion and an almost professional thirst”.

U.E.A. article edit
Calliphon recalls his rebellious student days in an unpublished article on student activism.

Another area in which Calliphon felt inclined to apply his expertise was on the whereabouts of King John’s lost treasure. In assessing a highly publicised hi-tech treasure hunt by the Wash Research Committee in 1957, Calliphon wrote: ‘I cannot but suspect that they will have missed the treasure by the not inconsiderable margin of about six miles and seven hundred and forty years’. Like many of his readers Calliphon believed that little treasure was actually lost, and that any remaining items would have been quickly scooped up by fortunate locals.

Ancient Norfolk
Calliphon imagines prehistoric Norfolk.

Inspired by excavations of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Thornham , Calliphon was compelled to explore even further into Norfolk’s history. Assessing the various hereditary  links between Anglo-Saxons and Neanderthals, Calliphon gives a brief overview of the theory of evolution and natural selection.

“It was the discovery of Neanderthal man just a hundred years ago which gave the evolutionists the precise material they wanted in applying their theories to human development. A hundred-year-old discovery from a German cave may seem remote from our Anglo-Saxon excavation at Thornham, but in fact they are by no means unconnected.”

Not all of Calliphon’s readers agreed with his analysis of primitive man. W.E. Earl of Norwich complained that ‘to suggest man was originally descended from apes is grotesque and an insult to his Creator’. In Calliphon’s defence, F.J. Newton of Worlingham recommended that Earl ‘listen to the B.B.C. broadcast to children “How things began” on Mondays at 9.55am’. 

Something Good
From an article on Norwich’s street furniture

If Calliphon ever used his column to vent any strong ideology it tended to relate to matters within his more immediate surroundings. In an article on street furniture Calliphon bemoans ‘the rash of pillars, posts, telephone kiosks police boxes, traffic signs and other impedimenta’ cluttering the streets and pavements of Norwich. Whilst lamenting that he lives in ‘an age which dedicates its wealth to lethal weapons rather than works of beauty’, Calliphon insists that Norwich’s elected representatives pay heed to preserve his fine city.

As well as city councillors, Calliphon had strong words of advice for Norfolk’s holidaymakers. In response to a rise in fatalities on the Norfolk Broads, Calliphon urges that ‘something more is needed than the pious exhortations which fall on unresponsive ears’. Being a good citizen and competent sailor he then provides a guide on water safety, covering everything from boat maintenance to diving techniques. Whist Calliphon is confident his advice can help prevent fatalities; he admits that nothing can be done ‘for the pig-headed fool who still refuses to wear a life-jacket’.

life jacket
Calliphon strongly advocated water safety

It is uncertain why Wells retired Calliphon and ended his run at the Eastern Daily Press in the late 1960s. Correspondence in the archive collection shows that Wells enjoyed writing the articles and that he built a core fan base of readers. During this period Wells started to focus full-time on palaeopathology and perhaps felt he could no longer commit the intellectual energy required by Calliphon. Fortunately Wells kept a well organised file of Calliphon’s work in his archive which reveals a previously unknown side of his enigmatic and multifaceted character.

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The Bone Reports

Calvin Garden Cropped

In the late 1960s Calvin Wells closed his general medical practice to focus full-time on palaeopathology through lecture tours and producing bone reports for archaeological organisations, university departments and academic journals. Already established as the leading palaeopathologist in the UK, it was during this period of official retirement that Wells was most prolific in publishing skeletal analysis. Based at White Horse Cottage in Hapton Norfolk, Wells usually received specimens by post which he examined in his kitchen or, weather depending, garden. A consummate professional, Wells offered an efficient service and expected that his reports be both paid for and published. During this period Wells’ expertise was in high demand and he worked for clients across the British Isles.

Romano-British Cemteraries
Published posthumously in 1982

Following a cancer diagnosis in 1976, Wells cancelled all future speaking arrangements yet continued writing up bone reports. Many of Wells’ reports remained unpublished at the time of his death in July 1978, and it became something of a raison d’être for Freddie Wells to ensure their publication. Given their impact on the study of palaeopathology and continued citation in literature today, Wells’ bone reports are a vital part of his legacy. In their biography of Wells, Professor Charlotte Roberts and Dr Keith Manchester write:

“The 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”

Cavlin Toronto 1966 flipped
Wells analysing skeletal remains, Toronto (c1960s)

This thorough approach to skeletal analysis is confirmed by the archive collection, which show that Wells produced a handwritten draft and several annotated typescripts before submitting every report. Wells adopted a coherent and consistent style, displaying raw data in an accessible format. Although stubborn in his belief that skeletal analysis should be informed by medical training, his clinical expertise and experience proved an asset to the discipline in its formative stages. In a memorial speech on Wells, the distinguished Austrailian doctor and anthropologist Dr Cecil J Hackett wrote:

“His examination of such skeletons and his intimate knowledge of the normal as well as the pathological appearance in each bone revealed the underlying thoroughness of his work and records, which had established him as the leading British palaeopathologist”

Given his adherence to medical techniques and a conservative approach to diagnosis, it is somewhat paradoxical that Wells became known for his eccentric interpretations of the causes of death, disease and injury. For those familiar with Wells’ bone reports it should not be surprising to lean that he penned a great deal of dramatic fiction, poetry and stage plays in his spare time. A fascination with the romantic and the tragic bled into Wells’ skeletal reports, leaving a lasting mark on his scientific bibliography.

Wells Bone Report.jpg
Dramatic excerpt from report on ‘Human Skull from Turret Lane, Ipswich’ (c1960s)

One example of Wells’ imaginative reading of skeletal remains is a 1963 report ‘The Human Skeleton from Cox Lane, Ipswich’. In this instance Wells analyses a male skeleton in his early thirties with six injuries caused by blunt force trauma. Confident that he could “deduce the probable sequence leading to the man’s death” Wells concocts a scenario wherein the victim is pulled from horseback by two assailants before being gruesomely stabbed by a third. Well concludes that the victim was:

murdermancoxlane.jpg
Skeleton from Cox Lane, Ipswich

“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”

This explicit and dramatic narrative does not hold up against contemporary scientific scrutiny. In a 2015 article titled ‘Making Sense of the Archaeology of Armed Violence’, archaeologist M.R. Geldof singles out Wells’ Ipswich report as exemplifying ‘the furthest reaches of over-interpretation’ with regard to skeletal analysis. In Geldof’s view Wells’ explanation for each wound is as unsupported as the last. However his major criticism of Wells is ‘not in his specific scenarios but rather his belief that he could create such a scenario in the first place’

Given his reputation as an leading authority in palaeopathology who resisted his reports being edited, it is a valid criticism that publications too readily indulged Wells’ overactive imagination. Given that it was often set alongside objective analysis and hard data, Wells can generally be forgiven for his habit of veering off into ‘airy conjecture‘. On the other hand, there are instances when Wells clearly subjugated scientific fact and the historical record to salacious invention.

Crime and Punishment in an Anglo-Saxon Cemetery
Annotated transcript of Worthy Park report (1975)

In reviewing criticism of Wells’ bone reports it would be amiss to ignore works such as ‘Crime and Punishment in an Anglo-Saxon Cemetery?’ (1975). Written in collaboration with Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, the report focuses on the skeleton of a sixteen year female Anglo-Saxon excavated at Worthy Park, Winchester. Based solely on analysis of the left and right femora, Wells deduces that ‘it is nearly certain this girl was raped’ as a form of punishment for being pregnant and the ‘tarnish she brought upon her family’s name’. Following a graphic description of the victim’s demise, Wells concludes that ‘her passport to merciful oblivion is likely to have been the slime and mire of this chalky trench’.

One major criticism of this report is that Wells expresses a sensationalist narrative at the expense of pure fact. Secondly he eagerly adopts explicit language and terminology which detracts from the report’s scientific content and value. Whilst the report was later republished as part of a larger work with Wells’ more objective findings attached, he publicly rebuked critics of his initial interpretation.

Slides from Wells’ research on Paget’s disease (c1970s)

In consideration of their various faults, fictions and deviations, to what extent do Wells’ bone reports have value for researchers of today?

Lep
Foot showing effects of leprosy, Anglo-Saxon, Beckford (c1970s)

The Putting Flesh on the Bones Project’s team osteologist Michelle Williams-Ward is uniquely placed to answer this question. Michelle is currently  working on a collaborative doctoral award between the University of Bradford and Norfolk Museums Service on the subject ‘Buried Identities: An osteological and archaeological analysis of burial variation and identity in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk’. In the course of Michelle’s research, she has analysed remains from many of the same sites as Wells, including Illington, North Elmham Park and Caistor-by-Norwich. As a result, Michelle has compared her findings and results against the research notes, contextual materials and reports created by Wells. In discussion of the value of Wells’ skeletal analysis today, Michelle notes that:

“Calvin took giant leaps between the evidence and his conclusions, and on certain subjects his mind ran away with him. Whilst he often went off at tangents in his discussion, his documentation is often right on the money. Whilst it is easy for researchers today to pass judgement on his findings, he represents the state of knowledge at that time and in many ways propelled new ideas forward”

Cremation
Cremated fragments, Lancashire (c1970s)

As a pioneer in the discipline of palaeopathology and archaeological thought Wells introduced many firsts. For example, he was the first person writing in English to scientifically study cremation burials and also introduced the concept of pseduopathology. His work on leprous individuals from a medieval cemetery in Norfolk was one of the first bioarchaeological reports on leprosy and is still cited today. Similarly his collaboration with Nicholas Woodhouse on a person with Paget’s disease in medieval North England is considered a classic example against new data is compared.

The fact that citations of Wells’ bone reports have increased in the forty years since his death are a testament to their enduring scientific value. As the team open up the Calvin Wells Archive Collection we are discovering the extent of research and thought behind every bone report. Similarly we are finding out more about the life and personality of their enigmatic author. Although forthright and resolute in his opinions, Wells by no means thought himself as completely infallible. As he was keen to remind every scholar attempting to recognise and record 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”

References 

‘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)

‘Disease in ancient man : an international symposium’ Edited by Gerald D. Hart Toronto Canada (1983)

‘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)

‘And to describe the shapes of the dead: Making Sense of the Archaeology of Armed Violence’ by M.R. Geldof in ‘Wounds and Wound Repair in Medieval Culture’ Edited by Larissa Tracy and Kelly DeVries Brill Online (2015)

The Curious Case of the Skeleton in the Car

A particularly valuable part of the Calvin Wells Archive Collection is his correspondence files which have letters, note and postcards from prominent figures in the worlds of medicine, science, humanities, and arts. As the Putting Flesh on the Bones Project develops we will delve deeper into the conversations, collaborations, debates, and arguments which played out in Wells’ correspondence. Here is a just a selection of more informal communication from his friends and colleagues which serve as amusing vignettes into unique and often eccentric lives.

Detail of R R Clarke Postcard

A news cutting attached to a postcard from archaeologist and former Curator of Norwich Museums, Roy Rainbird Clarke. The article tells of Vilhelm Møller-Christensen driving across Denmark with a 500 year old skeleton in order to attract donations for Æbelholt Klostermuseum in North Zealand. This was not the first time the Danish palaeopathologist caused a stir by taking medieval skeletons on a long distance road trip. In 1953 he journeyed to the 6th International Congress on Leprosy in Madrid by car with ten leprous skeletons for use in a demonstration on bone malformations.

Above is a postcard from Møller-Christensen with an image of his aforementioned driving companion. Like Calvin Wells, Møller-Christensen’s reputation of being something of an enigmatic showman spread beyond the world of palaeopathology. Graham Greene included a reference to the Danish doctor in A Burnt-Out Case (1960) based on stories from their mutual friend, the famous leprologist Michel Lechat.

‘This character looks very distracted to me…’

Surprisingly schoolboy humour exhibited by the distinguished Welsh scientist, archaeologist and television personality Glyn Daniel. As editor of Antiquity, Daniel published, reviewed or declined Wells’ frequent contributions. In an unpublished article titled Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners, Wells praises Daniel’s ‘scrupulous and gracious’ professionalism over the ‘discourteous tempering’ of other leading journal editors. The book referred to in the postcard is Bones, Bodies and Disease, which formed part of the Ancient People and Places series overseen by Daniel.

‘The brain is made in Germany’

A Thank You note to Calvin Wells from Folke Henschen, Professor of Pathological Anatomy at Karolinska Institutet and Chairman of the Medical Nobel Committee. The annotation ‘Gudden Del’ suggests that the image was created or featured in a publication by the renowned German neuroanatomist and psychiatrist Bernhard Von Gudden. Many of the books, journals and images in Wells’ archive collection show he had fascination with the human mind and mental health.

Felices Pascuas y Próspero Año Nuevo

A homemade Christmas and New Year card from the family of Peruvian pathologist Dr Oscar Urteaga-Ballon. During the 1960s, Calvin Wells corresponded with him regularly about the anthropology of ancient Andean societies. The front of the postcard shows the elongated head of a Paracas mummy aside a flower and potato plant. This unusual juxtaposition of images is made clear in Urteaga-Ballon’s accompanying correspondence. In ancient Paracas culture it was common practice for the dead to be mummified then buried in a funeral bundle with flowers, fruits and vegetables. However it remains unclear why the doctor thought this was a suitably festive concept for expressing Season’s Greetings.

References

The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects Edited by Jane Buikstra, Charlotte Roberts New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2012)

Remembering Calvin

with Dr Keith Manchester

Dr Keith Manchester instigated the academic discipline of human osteology and palaeopathology in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford in 1980. He is an Honorary Visiting Professor in Palaeopathology, retired General Medical Practitioner with fifty years’ experience, and author of numerous articles and publications.

Keith 1]
Keith Manchester with graduate student (c1980s)

A close friend of Calvin and Freddie Wells, Keith was instrumental in securing the transfer of the archive collection to the University of Bradford. His expert subject knowledge alongside unique personal connection to the collection means Keith is a significant asset to the Putting Flesh on the Bones project.

Dr Keith Manchester Meg Howe 2017
Keith and BARC Placement Student Meg Howe (2017)

In this interview, Keith talks about Calvin’s background, his friendship with the Wells family, and the story behind the archive collection and library. We also delve into the more controversial and enigmatic aspects of Calvin’s life and legacy.

How did you come to develop a correspondence with Calvin?

I first had contact with Calvin in 1972, seeking his opinion on human skeletal remains recovered in excavations at Sandal Castle. He was immensely helpful and, indeed, very patient with me, not a characteristic for which he was generally known. Our relationship developed and we became close corresponding friends. Sadly, I never got to meet him personally, and he died having just written to me with his terminal cancer diagnosis of carcinoma of the prostate, enumerating, in his matter of fact way, the sites of his skeletal metastases.

Classroom Combined
Calvin conducts a lesson for Toronto school children (c1960s)

After Calvin’s death you developed a close friendship with his wife and daughter?

Yes. As a consequence of a paper which I wrote on the palaeopathology on the Royalist Garrison at Sandal, which was published in OSSA, Freddie contacted me. She said that, on reading my paper, she felt that I was the reincarnation of Calvin. I felt very honoured, just as I did when Professor Vilhelm Møller-Christensen said that I was his alter ego.

The friendship of my wife, myself and our family with Freddie and her daughter Satra rapidly developed into a close relationship with mutual visits being frequently paid to Bradford and to their house ‘White Horse Cottage’ in Hapton, and this continued throughout the lives of Freddie and Satra.

Calvin and Freddie Wells, Vilheim Moller- Christensen 1962 Cropped
Calvin and Freddie entertain Vilhelm Møller-Christensen at Mulbarton Old Hall, Norwich(1962)

Tell me a little bit about Calvin’s archive and library, and your role in bringing it to Bradford?

Calvin had amassed a very considerable archive of books, papers, photographs, 35mm slides, x-rays, and palaeopathological specimens, of immense academic value, all of which were kept in a large library at their cottage. This was overseen by the cremated remains of Calvin in an urn, which Freddie kept in the library and talked to frequently.

During one of my visits my wife and I made to Hapton, Freddie expressed that it was Calvin’s wish that his archive should  be donated to a University which established a graduate course in palaeopathology. In the interim it was being looked after by The Wellcome Trust.

When the MSc in Human Osteology and Palaeopathology was introduced into the curriculum of the Department of Archeological Science in Bradford, Freddie deemed that Bradford was the correct recipient. We owe her an enormous debt of gratitude, as there were several other international academic institutions vying for the collection at the time.

Neanderthal Skull. Mount Carmel
Detail from Calvin Wells notebook ‘Homo neanderthalensis, Mount Carmel, Palestine’ (c1970s)

What are your favourite parts of Calvin’s Archive Collection ?

His slide collection, notes and correspondence, and not to mention the huge collection of books. Calvin had the ability to explore a wide variety of subjects in palaeopathology and the history of medicine. He was a very talented man all round, a polymath really. This is reflected in the archive material.

Calvin clearly left an impressive legacy but he also held some controversial opinions. For example, he was adamant that anybody practicing palaeoathology should have qualifications in medicine. Considering the evolution of discipline, do you think he would’ve changed his mind?

I’m not sure Calvin changed his mind about anything! That will likely come across in his correspondence. Though the discipline wouldn’t now exist if it had to rely on people who were medically qualified. Really for doctors, palaeopathology can only be taken on as a part-time interest. Though with the current demands on the profession in the UK, it would be far more difficult for a GP now to do what Calvin and I did.

Detail
Detail from bone report on excavations at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk (c1960s)

A significant criticism leveled at Calvin is that in both his professional correspondence and publications he had habit of being too emotive in his language. Critics have commented on his inappropriate language and terminology. Do you think this is a fair criticism?

Calvin didn’t have any hang-ups but he also didn’t suffer fools gladly. Perhaps he was guilty of making interpretations with too much exaggeration. For example, he talked about Anglo-Saxon serfs romping in the haystacks of East-Anglia. I mean they may well have done, but I don’t think Calvin could find any skeletal evidence for that!

However I think that I knew Calvin, by correspondence, better than anyone now alive, and knew Freddie and Satra very well. In addition to be being a much beloved family man and friend, he was an ethical and highly regarded physician and palaeopathologist.

Waterskiing
Calvin water-skied daily (c1960s)

Is it unusual for a medically trained professional, who was known for being conservative in his diagnosis, to make such imaginative interpretations of what he saw?

Sir Mortimer Wheeler said that ‘Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows’. In other words, unless you start making an interpretation then all you have are lists, diagrams, tables. I feel the same way about palaeopathology, if you’re just going to describe palaeopathological lesions and not extend beyond that, then that too is the ‘driest dust that blows’. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t advance anything. In my opinion archaeology, and palaeopathology, is a way of understanding people in the past. If you don’t use modern methods, modern experience, to interpret the lesions that you see in skeletal remains then there is no way you can put flesh and blood onto the bones. This is necessary to understand the sufferings, disabilities, and pains of people in distant antiquity. Those were Calvin’s ethics as well.

KM
Keith Manchester at the University of Bradford (2017)

Dr. Keith Manchester and Charlotte A. Roberts authored a biography on ‘Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908-1978)’ in The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects Edited by Jane Buikstra, Charlotte Roberts New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2012) pp.141-145

An Introduction

‘Putting Flesh on the Bones’ is a collaboration between the University of Bradford’s Special Collections and Biological Anthropology Research Centre (BARC). With generous support from the Wellcome Trust, the project will undertake the cataloguing, digitisation and promotion of the Calvin Wells Archive Collection. It is intended that the collection will become a valuable resource for the study of palaeopathology and osteology.

Calvin Wells M110
Calvin Wells analysing a skull at his Norfolk home (c. 1970s)

Dr Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908-1978) is considered the father of palaeopathology in the United Kingdom and his work remains internationally influential today. Forty years after his death his publications continue to be cited around the world by academics and researchers from a wide range of disciplines. A practicing General Practitioner, his medical training informed how he diagnosed disease and injury in the bones of earlier people. In addition to being a pioneer in the study of cremation and inhumation, Wells published research articles on leprosy, tuberculosis, Paget’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and scurvy.

male and female brow images m7
‘Male and female brow’ (c. 1970s). 35mm slide from the Calvin Wells Archive Collection

Having worked on several major excavations Wells earned a reputation for writing extensive, informative and accessible bone reports. Passionate and prolific in his discipline, 76% of all bone reports in 1978 – the year of his death – were written by Wells. Not one to methodically follow procedure, his prolific output is partly due to a casual attitude to bone curation following examination.

‘Late Saxon skulls excavated at Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, Norfolk’ (c. 1960s)

Once catalogued and described, it is anticipated that Wells’ bone reports, associated research notes, and radiographic and photographic material will inform and motivate new and on-going scientific research.

As Wells emphasised most emphatically in his renowned Bones, Bodies and Disease (1964), in order to truly understand disease in the past one must look beyond human remains. Therefore Wells readily adopted the roles of anthropologist, linguist, medical historian and art historian in order to study the history of human health and disease. Born into an upper-middle class family in early 20th century England, Wells’ writings on issues such as race, gender and culture have deservedly undergone extensive review and criticism. A substantial though controversial figure today and in his lifetime, this project aims to untangle some of the mythology surrounding his biography.

Couverture livre WELLS
‘Bones, Bodies and Disease’ (1964) Wells’ well reviewed and popular introduction to palaeopathology

The archive collection was donated to the University of Bradford in 1984 by Calvin’s wife Freddie, herself a medical professional and palaeopathology enthusiast. It holds material related to his professional and personal history, including research material, manuscripts and publications, photographic and audio-visual material. Bradford’s J.B. Priestley Library also holds a large section of his personal library. This vast and rich archive will appeal to anybody with an interest in the biological development and deterioration of humanity throughout the ages.

Over the next 18 months the ‘Putting the Flesh on the Bones’ project will draw on expertise from a range of specialist subjects in order to unlock the hidden potential of the Calvin Wells Archive Collection. Please subscribe or bookmark our blog to keep updated with news, publications, events and workshops centred around this complex and fascinating archive.

Paper Selection
A notebook, selection of postcards and correspondence from Calvin Wells’ paper archive