In assessing Calvin Wells’ contribution to the study of palaeopathology, it’s worth noting that he only committed himself full-time to the discipline in later life. At the age of 62 when many are settling into retirement, Calvin started to forge his legacy as a world renowned palaeopathologist. In the 30 years preceding this period Calvin worked primarily as a General Practitioner diagnosing disease and injury in the living. Completing his medical studies at University College London, Dr Wells served in the Royal Medical Corps for six years before setting up a general medical practice in Norwich city centre. According to reminisces of his wife Freddie, it was she who ran the business side of things while Calvin spent much of his work week motoring around the Norfolk countryside visiting his rural patients. Aside from Calvin’s student memoirs, there is very little archive material from his time in the medical profession. This is one of many factors which make this specimen report and accompanying photographs from 1957 among the more unusual items in the Calvin Wells Archive Collection.
Sebaceous horn (1957)
Sebaceous horn (1957)
Sebaceous, or cutaneous, horns are a rare condition and this particular case is even rarer considering the extent to which the tumour developed before being excised. Medical doctor and palaeopathologist Keith Manchester states that it is the largest specimen he’s encountered and makes a comparison with the case of Madame Dimanche. Also referred to as Widow Sunday, Madame Dimanche (pictured right: From Bailey and Love’s Textbook of Surgery, 1932) was a 76 year-old watercress seller from early 19th-century Paris. Over the course of six years, a 25cm sebaceous horn grew from her forehead before being removed by the famous French surgeon Joseph Souberille. Calvin’s patient was far more affected by her condition in the sense that it prevented her from forming any romantic relationships. There is added poignancy in the fact that the condition is easily treated with a simple excision and skin graft. In a similar manner with which he would later interpret high drama in ancient bones, Calvin ensured to convey a glimpse of humanity in this specimen report.
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.
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”
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.
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:
“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.
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?
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”
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”
‘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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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