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 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.

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.

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


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