Scholarly and Strange

The background to Bones, Bodies and Disease

Published in 1964 as volume 37 of Thames & Hudson’s landmark archaeology series Ancient People and Places, Calvin Wells’ Bones, Bodies and Disease is his most enduring work on palaeopathology. The series’ editor at the time was the distinguished archaeologist Glyn Daniel, who knew Wells personally but was taking somewhat of a risk commissioning him for such a major project. Up until this point Wells had published relatively little research besides a handful of skeletal reports focused mainly on excavations in East Anglia. However, letters from Daniel to Wells reveal that the editor was keen to meet the demand for archaeological literature which focused specifically on ancient disease, injury and medical treatment. As a general practitioner with a parallel career in palaeopathology Wells was the best, if not the only, candidate for the role.

With Bones, Bodies and Disease, Wells had ambitions to help popularise palaeopathology much in the same way Daniel, who was Television Personality of the Year 1955, had achieved with archaeology. In an interview for the BBC Home Service Wells stated that:

Transcript of Calvin Wells interview on BBC Home Service (1964)

Bones, Bodies, DiseaseTo the extent that Bones, Bodies and Disease was intended to make the study of ancient disease stimulating to the general reader Wells was remarkably successful. The book was warmly reviewed in national newspapers and magazines. East Anglia’s Eastern Daily Press stated that ‘to call it a thriller would not be out of place’ while the Liverpool Echo called it ‘a whodunit with a difference’. In the Irish Times the book was deemed ‘scholarly and strange’ with the clarification that it was ‘decorative and exact in scholarship’ with ‘wide and diverse appeal’. The Times Literary Supplement welcomed Dr Wells’ ‘exciting textbook of palaeopathology’ and the Economist confirmed that it contained ‘much to entertain and instruct the general reader’. Perhaps the most effusive review of this nature was by Jacquetta Hawkes in the Sunday Times who praised ‘Wells’ dedicated enthusiasm for his enthusiasm for his unusual subject, which has given vigour and vividness to his pen.’

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Extract from Hawkes’ Sunday Times review (May 1964)

It was not just in the popular press where Bones, Bodies and Disease received a positive reception, as several leading specialist journal and publications awarded the book favourable reviews. They included Science, the British Medical Journal, the Archaeological Journal, and the Pharmaceutical Journal. Writing in the Dutch archaeology journal Helinium the eminent Belgian physician Paul Janssens gave the work a glowing review, calling it a work of great value to archaeologists, medical doctors and the general reader.

The only exception to the largely enthusiastic response to Bones, Bodies and Disease appeared in the Museums Journal and was authored by Wells’ fellow palaeopathologist Don Brothwell. Instead of praising the accessibility or simplicity of the writing, Brothwell

Bones, Bodies, Disease German
German edition of Bones, Bodies and Disease

saw the author as ‘underestimating the reading ability and intelligence of people most likely to read such books’. The second major criticism, possibly the sharpest blow to the self-confessed pedant Wells, was that the book suffered from vague and inaccurate referencing. Overall, Brothwell felt the book fell ‘below par’ of the usual standard featured in the ‘Ancient People and Places’ series. An infuriated Wells demanded the Museums Journal publish a letter of reply. In response to Brothwell’s criticism of the book’s simple style, Wells countered that there was ‘no virtue in turgid complexity’. To the second criticism that the work was poorly referenced Wells accused Brothwell of lacking the training and experience to make such judgements. Despite Glyn Daniel’s best efforts to broker peace between the two palaeopathologists, their relationship became acrimonious thereafter.

Leaving this negative exchange aside the publication of Bones, Bodies and Disease was a major turning point Wells’ career in palaeopathology and remains a central part of his bibliography. In addition to selling sufficiently well to merit a second print, the book was translated into numerous and has the remarkable honour of being the only general work on palaeopathology in the Portuguese language. Despite its age the publication continues to be cited in bioarchaeology research and literature, and has yet to be fully superseded by later works. As an introductory book to palaeopathology for the general reader it remains pertinent, cover many subjects still feature in public debates related to archaeology and anthropology.

Given the legacy of Bones, Bodies and Disease it is surprising that Wells’ second and final book Man in his World made such little impact. Published in 1971 by John Baker Publishers Limited, Man in his World was an attempt by Wells to write an anthropological survey analysing 1 million years of human history and civilisation. The book was released with relatively little fanfare with none of the international publicity his first book received. A small review in The Sunday Times called the book ‘a terse and well informed impression’ let down by rather ‘stolid writing’. The review did praise the book’s illustrations, which were done by Wells’ daughter Satra . Despite the lack of coverage Man in his World achieved moderate success, and was later republished and distributed by the Scientific Book Club. Unusually the book was also published in Turkey where it appears to have sold well.

While only writing two books in his lifetime, Wells’ skeletal reports, journal articles and contributions of chapters to other publications means that he remains one of the most prolific writers on palaeopathology in the United Kingdom. Moreover as the Putting Flesh on the Bones project unlocks Wells’ archive we are finding considerably more writings not included in his official bibliography. These writings include unpublished work on palaeopathology as well as vast array of other subjects, including anthropology, history medicine, art history, and more. By unlocking the archive material we hope to give researchers the ability to reassess Calvin Wells’ ‘strange and scholarly’ life and work.

Selected Bibliography

Bones, Bodies and Disease by Calvin Wells (London: Thames & Hudson, 1964)

Man in His World by Calvin Wells (London: Baker, 1971)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by Don Brothwell in Museum Journal (vol. 64, no.4, March 1965, p.340-341)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by R.J. Harrison British Medical Journal (9 October 1964, p.1245)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by Paul Janssens in Helinium (Volume 9, 1964, pp.282-284)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by T.D. Stewart in Science (07 Aug 1964: Vol. 145, Issue 3632, pp. 568-569)

Review of Bones, Bodies and Disease by Roger Warwick Archaeological Journal (1964: 121:1, pp. 215-216


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.

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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.

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‘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.

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‘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