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 In an unpublished article titled Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners, Wells praises Daniel’s ‘scrupulous and gracious’ professionalism over the ‘discourteous tempering’ of other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.


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


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