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:
To 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.’
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
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.
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